AT LEAST 119 people have been killed and about 60 more injured after a fire broke out at a poultry processing plant in China’s north-east Jilin province, in one of the country’s worst industrial disasters in years.
The fire broke out just after 6am in a workshop at the processing plant owned by the Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Company in Dehui city. It is thought more than 300 workers were in the plant when the fire started. More than 500 firefighters and 67 fire appliances were sent to the scene.
The provincial fire department attributed the incident to an ammonia leak. The chemical is kept pressurised as part of the cooling system in meat processing plants.
The fire was one of China’s worst recent industrial disasters, with the death toll the highest since a September 2008 mining cave-in that claimed 281 lives.
“I started working at 6am along with another 100 workers in my workshop. There were two workshops in the plant,” Wang Fengya, 44, one of the workers who escaped, told state news agency Xinhua.
“Soon after, someone shouted ‘run away’ and we quickly ran to the exit, which is about 40 metres away from my seat. Suddenly, the lights inside went out and the plant got quite dark.”
Ms Wang added that she fell while escaping, but when she finally got out she looked back and saw “high flames”.
Other survivors in hospital told state television that panic broke out in the plant and that everyone started running. One women said she had escaped by jumping out of a window after being engulfed by a thick cloud of black smoke.
Rescue workers described the interior layout of the plant as being “complicated” and state media said that the narrow exits of the pre-fabricated building made rescue difficult.
Reports on Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television cited family members as saying the doors were always kept locked during working hours, during which workers were forbidden to leave, and that the plant never carried out fire drills.
Guo Yan, 39, a worker at the plant, told state media that an emergency exit was blocked.
She said: “Everyone was swarming toward another workshop. It was so overcrowded that I was harshly pushed and squeezed. But I didn’t stop for a second, even when I stumbled and lost my shoes.”
The death toll prompted president Xi Jinping, on a visit to Latin America and the United States, to issue instructions for authorities to care for the injured and to vigorously investigate the cause of the disaster, holding accountable according to law all those found to be responsible.
People took to social media sites to express their anger.
“Was this place never regularly inspected by fire safety authorities?” wrote one user on China’s popular Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo.
“Senior officials need to be sacked because of this,” wrote another.
While workplace safety regulations do exist in China, they are often not enforced by local authorities.
Geoffrey Crothall, communications director with the Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisation China Labour Bulletin, said: “Unfortunately, that’s not unusual for many factories. Gates and fire exits are often blocked or locked because management sees it as a security problem. Unfortunately, securing the factory premises for factory owners is often more important than the safety of their employees.”
He said fire and safety standards tended to be lower priorities for Chinese factory owners, “certainly well below profits, productivity and security of the premises”.
He added: “Although there have been some improvements in safety awareness in China’s workplaces over the last decade or so, we are still a long way from a situation where there is a culture of safety first.”
An editorial carried by Xinhua yesterday said that officials and enterprises must “forego their desire to line their pockets and shoulder their responsibility to respect and protect human life. Companies that violate the law and officials who neglect their duties deserve harsh punishment. Regulations should not be put aside and laws should be abided by.”