Police in Japan are investigating whether a fire that claimed the lives of at least 27 people in an eight-storey building at a busy shopping district in the city of Osaka on Friday morning was a result of arson.
Officers were searching for a man in his fifties or sixties, who witnesses saw carrying a paper bag from which an unidentified liquid was dripping. They are also trying to determine whether the suspect is among those who died.
The fire started on the fourth floor of the building at the Kitashinchi entertainment district near Osaka station.
It was mostly extinguished in 30 minutes after 70 fire engines were mobilised.
The 27 people from inside the building were found with heart and lung failure and were rushed to the hospital, public broadcaster NHK reported. An official in the Osaka Municipal Fire Department said they were in cardiopulmonary arrest – a term used in Japan before the death of a person is officially confirmed.
Television footage showed firefighters working to douse the fire on the top floors of the building that had smashed and blackened windows.
One woman was conscious and brought down by an aerial ladder from a window on the sixth floor and was being treated in a hospital.
A doctor at one of the hospitals treating the victims said he believed many of them died after inhaling carbon monoxide as they had limited external injuries. Police said the cause of the deaths could not be determined until the bodies were autopsied.
Authorities are investigating the possibility that the smoke filled the floor so quickly that the victims had no time to escape, Nippon Television said.
On Friday night, crowds gathered outside of the building to glimpse the scene where firefighters and police officers were investigating.
“I haven’t heard of the cause but I’m shocked and wondering why someone would do this,” said Yuji Uehara, who works for a finance company. “I also offer my condolences to those who died.”
The building houses a mental and internal medicine clinic, an English language school and other businesses. Most of the victims are believed to be visitors at the clinic on the fourth floor, fire officials said.
In 2019 at the Kyoto Animation studio, an attacker stormed into the building and set it on fire, killing 36 people and injuring more than 30 others.