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42 injured in explosion in northern Japan's Sapporo

Firefighters inspect collapsed buildings in Sapporo on Dec. 17, 2018, following a suspected gas explosion the night before. (Kyodo)

SAPPORO (Kyodo) -- Forty-two people were injured when wooden buildings housing a Japanese-style pub, a real estate agency and a clinic collapsed following a suspected gas explosion Sunday night in Sapporo, northern Japan, local authorities said.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at a bar where an explosion occurred in Sapporo's Toyohira Ward, on the night of Dec. 16. 2018. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

The blast occurred at around 8:30 p.m. Sunday in Toyohira Ward, causing a fire that burned until it was extinguished at 2:10 a.m. Police suspect that gas leaking from more than 100 deodorizer spray cans in the real estate office intended for disposal caught fire when a water heater was switched on.

Among the 42 victims, a male employee of the real estate agency in his 30s was seriously injured. The office was most severely damaged.

The police said 19 males and 23 females, aged from 1 to their 60s, were injured. Numerous customers who were dining on the pub's second floor said they smelled gas at the time of the explosion, suggesting the possibility that a gas leak caused the blast.

A real estate agency staffer told the police the blast occurred after the deodorizer spray cans had been punctured and the water heater turned on. The city has banned people from making holes in spray cans before their disposal since 2017, after a fatal accident involving spray cans in the city two years earlier.

The windows of condominiums and restaurants near the site, which is located close to a subway station in the Hokkaido capital, were shattered and wood debris was scattered dozens of meters away. Many people who felt the blast said they thought it was an earthquake.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said it has dispatched seven officials to the site to look into the cause. A local fire department said the three tenants in the buildings were poorly prepared for possible fires as it found no equipment for evacuations or alarms there during an on-site inspection in October.

There were flaws in required fire safety measures at all of the tenants including failure to install an escape ladder, according to the local fire department. Administrative guidance had been repeatedly issued since two years ago, but no improvements had been made by the tenants, it said.

A gas safety official who visited the blast site said five tanks of propane gas weighing 50 kilograms each were installed outside the pub, while two 20-kg tanks were located outside the real estate office. There was no significant damage to any of the tanks, according to the official.

"The ceiling fell, then the entire second floor collapsed and we were all stuck. We managed to escape after everyone kicked through the wall," a person who was in the pub at the time and later treated at a hospital said, according to a relative.

The ground floor of the pub had a kitchen and counter seats while the second floor had private dining rooms, according to a neighbor who had visited the establishment several times.

"Suddenly I heard the boom, my body was lifted and blown to the floor," said a 28-year-old man who was dining with a friend on the second level of the izakaya. "After the explosion, power went out and fire instantly spread and came near so I jumped out of an open window to the street."

"If the (second floor) hadn't collapsed, everyone might have been stuck there and burned to death," said a 49-year-old man who was dining with his family at the izakaya. Fire spread within five minutes after the blast, throwing customers into a state of panic with screams and cries, he recalled.

The man said he had a brush with death in the face of approaching fire, but the second level crumbled shortly afterward and he fell to the street.

"Orange flames leaped up and the izakaya was blown away," a neighborhood local said, adding that upon rushing outside he saw that the pub was completely destroyed.

"Immediately after the sound of the explosion, windows were broken and bits of glass hit me. I got cuts on my face and hands," a 68-year-old woman who was dining at a nearby restaurant said after receiving treatment at a hospital. "All the food on the table was blown away."

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