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Blaze in Tokyo mah-jongg parlor kills 44
Fire started by blast rips through upper floors of 4-story building

Saturday, September 1, 2001

TOKYO -- An explosion and fire tore through a gambling parlor in a bustling Tokyo nightclub district early today, killing at least 44 people in one of Japan's deadliest blazes in years, officials said.

Some people jumped from third-story windows to escape the fire. Tokyo Fire Department spokesman Takashi Yamagishi said three people were hospitalized.

Firefighters scrambled up ladders to reach the third and fourth floors of the building in the Kabukicho entertainment district, which were gutted by the blaze.

Forty-four people were killed and three were injured and hospitalized, but their conditions weren't clear, Yamagishi said. Police initially said that 47 people were hospitalized with injuries.

Because of the large number of dead and injured in the fire, the victims had to be taken to 16 different nearby hospitals, where grim-faced doctors interviewed by television crews gave descriptions of badly burned victims blackened by the intense heat and heavy smoke.

"Their hearts and respiration had already stopped when they arrived here," said one emergency room doctor whose hospital received four of the blast victims. The fire was extinguished and a search by rescuers showed that there were no more victims, according to Japanese public broadcaster NHK television.

It was unclear how many people were inside the mah-jongg parlor where the blast occurred, on the third floor of the four-story building. Some people scampered to the roof and were plucked to safety.

Witnesses said they heard a loud bang and saw smoke billowing from the building, which houses several other clubs and restaurants. Emergency crews quickly cordoned off the area as hundreds of onlookers crowded around. The fire was put out after about five hours.

Japan's Kyodo News agency reported that police suspect arson, but officials declined to comment. Authorities were trying to determine the cause of the explosion and fire, said a spokesman at the Shinjuku police station who gave only his last name, Masuda.

News reports said the explosion occurred at about 1 a.m. when an employee of the Ikkyu mah-jongg parlor opened the door of the establishment. Mah-jongg is a popular table game in much of East Asia and sometimes involves gambling.

Kyodo News agency said the explosion tore open a hole measuring 6 inches by 5 feet in the side of the building, whose tenants include a casino and an adult club advertised with gaudy red-and-pink signs on the front.

The Kabukicho area of Shinjuku, where the fire and blast occurred is Tokyo's most famous red-light district.

The explosion came in the early hours today, when the zone is most heavily packed with revelers.

The area's narrow streets are crowded with small bars and restaurants, strip clubs, massage parlors and gambling establishments.

"There are many old buildings that aren't properly maintained," said Tomonori Nishige, 23, who works in a karaoke parlor near the site of the disaster. "It's inevitable."

For years, Shinjuku's Kabukicho district has been the center of the city's mizu shobai, or sex entertainment industry.

Quiet by day, the area courses with Japanese company employees by night -- mostly men, who often drink heavily and wander through a forest of neon either alone or in small groups from bar to restaurant to bar.

Many of the entertainment establishments are tiny clubs that occupy entire floors in narrow buildings, much like the one where the fire broke out.

The fire occurred on Tokyo's annual disaster preparation day, when the self-defense force, fire department and police performed huge drills aimed at readiness for earthquakes.

At the start of the drills this morning, Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, appeared on television to say that he would pray for the victims of the mah-jongg fire.

Koizumi also announced that he was ordering an investigation into the cause.

"I want the ministries and agencies concerned to carry out a thorough investigation into the case," he said.

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