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Japanese Officials Investigate Explosion - 2001-09-01

In one of Tokyo's worst fires in decades, 44 people died Saturday when an explosion and fire tore through a crowded building in an infamous red light district.

Japanese officials are trying to ascertain whether a gas leak or arson could have caused the deadly incident at the busy Tokyo nightspot. Fire officials say that they found a broken gas pipe near what they believe to be the source of the explosion.

The deadly blast and fire took place early Saturday in a mahjong parlor on the third floor of a building in Kabukicho, one of the Japanese capital's major entertainment districts. On Friday nights it is packed with revelers.

An explosion was heard by people across the neighborhood and fire gutted the third and fourth floors of the building. At the time, it was filled with patrons of the gambling club, a bar and other establishments. The blast ripped a large hole in the building's wall.

More than 100 fire trucks and ambulances rushed to the scene of the incident, and firefighters were able to rescue some people from the burning building. Firefighters say the death toll was high because the building had only one inside stairway and the fire doors, meant to keep out smoke, did not close properly.

The gambling parlor had just one window, which was covered up. The same was true for the bar. Japanese authorities say the building's small elevator, as well as its sole staircase, were engulfed in smoke and flames. People in the area say many establishments in the crowded nightclub area of Kabukicho are in violation of safety codes, but police have not commented.