Photo/Illutration(The Asahi Shimbun)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KYOTO--For the 70 executives and employees of Kyoto Animation Co. here, the No. 1 studio proved to be a firetrap for half of them. Aside from one individual, those who reached a second-floor veranda of the three-story building were among the lucky ones who survived a July 18 arson attack.

That's the picture that emerges from the investigation by Kyoto prefectural police into the July 18 arson attack in the city's Fushimi Ward that claimed 35 lives and left 34 others injured. Only one man in his 40s who was on the first floor managed to flee unscathed.

The self-confessed arsonist was severely burned in the incident.

Of the 32 employees on the second floor, 21 survived, many by jumping from the veranda.

In contrast, of the 27 employees on the third floor, 20, or more than 70 percent, perished. They were all found piled on top of each other in a stairwell on the opposite side of the floor from the veranda.

But even reaching the veranda did not guarantee safety.

One employee in his 50s who was on the second floor related his panic on realizing the building was ablaze.

He told The Asahi Shimbun that he was drawing background art for a new animation on the second floor of the studio around 10:30 a.m. when he heard someone shout, "Fire!"

Within about 10 seconds, thick and acrid black smoke poured up the two stairwells to the second floor. After about 30 seconds, the second floor became pitch black with smoke. Visibility was just about zero.

"Not even a minute had passed since the first alarm," the man recalled. "I thought the electricity was probably still on, but I could not be sure. The heat was also like a furnace."

He felt he wouldn't be able to reach the main stairwell that was used during evacuation drills. He didn't have a handkerchief, so he covered his nose and mouth with his hands, and crouching slightly, headed for the veranda and safety a few meters away.

But once he got there, he realized it was about four to five meters above ground. He hesitated about jumping because he did not think he could do so without hurting himself.

But someone below shouted, "You can do it" and "You'll be saved."

He climbed over the veranda railing and hung down from the railing with both arms.

"I released my arms without looking down," the man said.

But his memory is hazy after that.

He cannot even recall if he felt any pain, even though he hit his hip and both arms when he fell.

He was taken to hospital by ambulance and was discharged the same day. He learned by watching television news that the cause of the fire was arson.

Even though he was still in pain, the man returned to work in late July.

He said he vowed to his late colleagues, "I will continue to create works of high quality."

The man explained that he had always been a huge fan of anime and joined Kyoto Animation in the 1980s. In his youth, he often invited colleagues to his home to play games and drink. Usually about 20 like-minded individuals would gather, including a number who died in the fire, such as veteran animator Yoshiji Kigami, 61, and Yasuhiro Takemoto, 47, who served as director of the highly regarded TV anime "Lucky Star."

While the pain in his arms has all but gone, his hip still hurts when he stands up. But he continues to go to work because he feels that is "the only way to not buckle under to the despicable crime."