A suspected arson attack on an animation production company in Japan killed 24 people and injured dozens more on Thursday, with flames gutting the building in the city of Kyoto.
Police said the fierce blaze appeared to have been started deliberately but there was no immediate information on a possible motive.
The toll continued to climb hours after the fire began, with fire department officials saying bodies were being discovered as they searched the ravaged building.
A fire department official told AFP that at least 11 more people had been found “in cardio-respiratory arrest,” a term used in Japan to signify a victim’s death before it is officially certified.
The discoveries, on the building’s second floor and a stairwell leading to the roof, raised the toll to at least 24 dead.
Officials said 35 people had also been injured in the fire, 10 of whom were in serious condition, and local media said around 70 people were believed to have been in the building when the fire started.
Footage of the blaze showed thick white smoke pouring from the windows of the three-storey building. Its facade was charred black on much of one side where the flames had shot out of the windows.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took to Twitter to express his horror.
“It’s so dreadful that I’m lost for words,” he wrote.
“I pray for those who passed away.”
– ‘DROP DEAD’ –
The fire department said it began receiving calls around 10:35 am (0135 GMT) about the fire at the studio belonging to Kyoto Animation.
“Callers reported having heard a loud explosion from the first floor of Kyoto Animation and seeing smoke,” a fire department spokesman said.
Police said they were still investigating the cause of the fire but it was a suspected arson attack.
“A man threw a liquid and set fire to it,” a Kyoto prefectural police spokesman said.
Public broadcaster NHK reported that a man had been detained in connection with the blaze and was later taken to hospital for treatment. It reported that the suspect had poured a gasoline-like substance around the building and said “drop dead” as he set fire to it.
Witnesses described a powerful blaze.
“I heard two loud bangs, they sounded like explosions,” a man told NHK.
“The fire was raging hard. I saw red flames flaring.”
A woman living nearby told Kyodo news agency she had seen at least one injured person outside the building.
“A person with singed hair was lying down and there were bloody footprints,” the 59-year-old told the local news outlet.
There was no immediate statement from the studio, which produced several well-known television anime series, including “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” and “K-ON!”
“We are in the process of learning what happened,” said a woman who answered the phone at the firm’s headquarters in Uji City in the Kyoto region.
“We cannot tell you anything more,” she added.
The blaze prompted an outpouring of support from those in Japan’s anime industry, one of the country’s best known cultural exports.
“No, I don’t know what I should be thinking now,” tweeted Yutaka Yamamoto, an animation director who once worked at Kyoto Animation.
“WHY, WHY, WHY?”
An online fundraiser organised by an American anime licencing firm raised over $170,000 within hours of being set up.
Japan has a famously low crime rate, with violent crime very rare.
Arson is considered a serious crime and people convicted of deliberately setting fires in a country where many people still live in wooden houses can face the death penalty.
A man convicted of setting a fire that killed 16 people in Osaka in 2008 is currently on death row.
In 2016, a knife-wielding man went on the rampage at a care home for the mentally disabled, killing 19 in the country’s worst mass killing in decades.
By Dominic C. Odoh
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