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Osaka Pref. city ed. board missed 3 chances to recognize block wall danger

A police officer stands at the scene where a girl was trapped under a wall surrounding a pool that collapsed on top of her, in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, on June 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

TAKATSUKI, Osaka -- Education authorities here overlooked the dangers of a concrete block wall of a school that collapsed in a powerful earthquake and killed a student, even though there were three chances to recognize the risk over the past five years, it has emerged.

Fourth-grade student Rina Miyake, 9, died on her way to Takatsuki Municipal Juei Elementary School on the morning of June 18, after a powerful earthquake measuring a lower 6 on the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale struck northern Osaka Prefecture. A concrete block wall around her school's pool facilities along her commuting route collapsed on top of her.

The Takatsuki Municipal Board of Education disclosed on June 22 that a contractor failed to inspect that wall during a regular inspection of the school's facilities in 2014. Furthermore, another contractor that carried out an inspection in 2017 also overlooked the danger of the wall. Together with the previously disclosed failure to grasp the risks posed by the wall by an education board employee during a simple inspection in 2016, the board missed out on a total of three opportunities to acknowledge the risks posed by the wall over the last five years.

School facilities, including the concrete block walls surrounding them, are supposed to be inspected regularly -- once every three years under the Building Standards Act. Following the girl's death, the Takatsuki education board has been interviewing the contractors that had participated in two such inspections at Juei elementary, and released an interim report of their findings on June 22.

According to the report, the contractor that performed a January 2017 inspection at the school had visually examined the concrete block wall and judged it to be safe. A separate contractor hired for an inspection in February 2014 removed the wall from a list of items to be examined without permission, and filed a report with the education board that simply copied the results of an academic 2010 inspection.

The education board is set to investigate the detailed background leading to the two contractors' responses. The board is also considering interviewing other contractors in charge of inspections dating before academic 2010, the records of which have not been kept.

The education board also examined the school's past yearbooks, discovering that the wall was already up during the 1977 academic year. Because the height limit for such walls had been 3 meters at the time, the 3.5-meter wall at the Juei elementary was already against the law.

The unearthing of repeated inspection failures and a lack of information-sharing among officials raises the question whether the girl's death was actually a man-made disaster caused by the illegal state wall, rather than a natural disaster. As the collapse of concrete block walls caused fatalities in past quakes as well, both the central and local governments are scrambling to take necessary countermeasures.

"There was a lack of awareness (of the risk)," said Hiromi Tarui, superintendent of the Takatsuki Municipal Board of Education, as he bowed deeply during a press conference on June 22. During the conference, which was also attended by two other board officials, Tarui apologized for the board's failure to utilize information from an outside expert about the danger posed by the wall.

At a separate news conference held on the results of an emergency inspection of municipal elementary and junior high school walls, reporters focused on the Juei elementary case. When a reporter asked education board officials whether they viewed the girl's death as a man-made disaster, Toru Hirano, head of the board's education management department, replied, "The possibility cannot be ruled out."

According to the board, it wasn't until June 21 -- three days after the powerful quake -- that its senior officials learned that the danger of the wall had been pointed out in the past, and that a board employee had determined that the wall was safe. Such information had only been shared among employees directly related to the inspection of the Juei elementary wall.

The wall in question was 3.5 meters tall, including its foundation, of which the concrete block portion accounted for 1.6 meters. On top of the wall's height being in violation of the Enforcement Order of the Building Standards Act, it also lacked buttresses that are required to reinforce block walls over 1.2 meters.

Furthermore, the portion connecting the wall's foundation to the concrete blocks was also vulnerable. Steel rods measuring only 33 centimeters long supported the connection from within -- 13 centimeters into the foundation and 20 centimeters into the blocks. The wall collapsed exactly at the point of connection between the two parts toward the student commuting route on June 18. An expert who examined the wall a day after the temblor pointed to the vulnerability of the connections.

"Anyone engaged in civil engineering knows buttresses are required for concrete block walls more than 1.2 meters high," a local architect criticized. "It is crystal clear that the wall was an illegal structure. I wonder if the inspectors were really professionals."

The architect also slammed the hammering test conducted by an education board employee, saying, "In order to examine the strength of concrete blocks, you must check the conditions of rebar inside of it by removing a portion of the wall. Even if you check the wall with a tapping rod, it does not constitute an appropriate test, as the sound does not reverberate."

During a disaster prevention class held at the Juei elementary in November 2015, Ryoichi Yoshida, 60, a disaster prevention specialist from Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, pointed out the potential risks posed by the concrete block wall in question. Having experienced the 1978 Miyagi earthquake himself, when many people died due to collapsing concrete block walls, he lamented, "If a human life that could have been saved was lost, it is extremely regrettable."

(Japanese original by Kazuki Ikeda, Toru Tsukui, Akira Okubo and Toshiyuki Mano, Osaka City News Department)

A concrete block wall is removed at Sekimae Minami Elementary School, in the Tokyo suburban city of Musashino, on June 22, 2018. (Mainichi)

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