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Investigators inspect ruined Okinawan castle for fire cause

Investigators inspect ruined Okinawan castle for fire cause

Tokyo: Fire and police investigators were inspecting the burned-out ruins of Shuri Castle on Okinawa on Friday to determine the cause of the fire that nearly destroyed the symbol of the Japanese island's cultural heritage and history of struggle.

The fire Thursday burned down the three main halls and four nearby structures at the castle in Okinawa's prefectural capital of Naha. It took firefighters 11 hours to extinguish the blaze.

More than 130 investigators were inspecting the site Friday, according to local police and fire officials. They believe the blaze started inside the Seiden, the castle's centerpiece, around 2:30 a.m. when nobody was around.

The late hour and the castle's design, with a spacious wooden main hall connected to other main buildings by hallways, might have allowed the fire to spread quickly.

Shuri Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which dates from the 1429-1879 Ryukyu Kingdom era. The castle, burned down during World War II, was largely restored in 1992 for the 20th anniversary of Okinawa's reversion to Japan that ended the island's 27-year U.S. occupation, which came two decades after mainland Japan. Historians and other experts had continued their restoration efforts until recently.

Many Okinawans expressed deep sorrow and devastation by the near-loss of Shuri Castle, which is a symbol of their cultural roots as well as history of their struggle since the 1879 annexation by Japan.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki said his heart was broken, but he expressed his determination to reconstruct the castle. Tamaki, who cut short a trip to South Korea and returned to Naha on Thursday, was in Tokyo on Friday meeting top officials of the central government to seek their support.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed his sympathy to the Okinawans, adding that the government is willing to do everything it can to help the castle's reconstruction.

Investigators were focusing on the ruins of the Seiden hall. Footage on Japan's NHK television, taken from a helicopter, showed dozens of uniformed officials wearing white helmets skimming through charred debris, putting pieces into buckets for further examination.

The castle had hydrants, alarms, portable extinguishers and water outside the buildings. But there were no sprinklers installed inside the buildings, Naha fire department official Ryo Kotani said.

The fire was detected when a security guard at the gate closest to the main structures rushed to Seiden in response to an alarm, Kotani said. The blaze had engulfed the hall and spread to nearby structures when firefighters arrived about 20 minutes later.

Treasures displayed at the castle are replicas of originals safely stored elsewhere in the city, fire officials said.

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