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Explosions, blaze kill 119 at poultry plant in China

Workers describe panic, chaos, blocked exits

Relatives of the victims hugged and wept after the deadly fire, one of the worst factory accidents in China in recent years. More than 50 people were taken to hospitals.AFP/Getty Images

HONG KONG — Explosions and fire tore through parts of a poultry plant in northeast China on Monday, killing at least 119 people in one of the country’s worst factory accidents in recent years.

Chinese news reports attributed many of the deaths at the factory, the Baoyuanfeng Poultry Plant, to blocked or inadequate exits that had hindered workers from escaping. The plant began operations four years ago and was considered a major domestic supplier.

Survivors described panic inside the burning plant, as employees unfamiliar with any fire escapes trampled and jostled each other through smoke and flames to reach exits that turned out to be locked.

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“Inside and outside the workshop was glowing red, and the lighting and escape indicators were all out,” one survivor, Wang Xiaoyun, told the China News Service.

The disaster came at a time of growing international concern over factory safety in Asia, punctuated by horrific accidents that have taken hundreds of lives. The worst was a collapse of a garment factory complex in Bangladesh on April 24 that killed more than 1,120.

Residents near the poultry factory in Jilin province heard blasts at about 6 a.m. Parts of the plant were engulfed in flames but it was unclear whether the fire broke out before or after the explosions, Chinese television reported. The Jilin provincial government said on its microblog news site that 119 people were confirmed dead.

By late in the day, Xinhua, the official news agency, said “people responsible” had been arrested over the disaster but did not identify them. The precise cause of the fire and explosions also remained unclear.

“When I woke up, there was smoke rising in the air and sirens and you knew straight away that it was bad news,” Dong Wenjun, a metal trader in the town of Mishazi, where the plant is located, said in a telephone interview. “But I didn’t expect it to be this bad. They were all local people, I think.”

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Television news showed rescuers picking their way through the blackened remnants of the plant.

The police evacuated residents near the plant, fearing more explosions from gas stored there, the China News Service reported.

More than 50 people were taken to the hospital, mostly for breathing difficulties from inhaling toxic gases, reports said.

Xinhua quoted an employee of the plant, Guo Yan, as saying she heard a boom and then people shouting that there was a fire. One fire exit was blocked and she had to escape through another exit, she told Xinhua.

“People were all rushing, pressing and crushing each other,” said Guo. “I fell over and had to crawl forward using all my might.”

Another report, from the Southern Metropolitan Daily, a newspaper published in southern China, said only one exit of the area where the fire had erupted was open.

China’s food-processing industry has grown rapidly in recent years to feed an increasingly prosperous and urbanized population and the poultry plant appeared to be one beneficiary of that growth.

The factory went into operation in 2009 and boasted of sales nationwide.

Dehui City, which administers the area that includes the poultry plant, has promoted itself as a base for commercial agriculture, animal feed and food processing.

By 2011, Dehui’s poultry industry could produce 250 million broiler chickens a year and slaughter 150 million of them, according to information on the Jilin government’s website.

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Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry, which owns the Mishazi plant, has more than 1,200 employees, the China News Service said. The company can produce 67,000 tons of chicken products every year, the Agriculture Ministry said on its website in 2010.

China’s rapid economic expansion has brought with it factories and mines troubled by work hazards, and frequent industrial accidents have drawn criticism that officials put economic growth before safety.

In an apparent reflection of such sensitivities, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, and president, Xi Jinping, who is traveling abroad, both promptly issued orders about the latest disaster. Xi told officials to “get to the bottom of the causes of this accident, pursue culpability according to the law, sum up the profound lessons, and adopt effective measures to resolutely prevent major accidents from occurring,” Xinhua reported.

The government does not issue detailed figures for industrial accidents but has said safety is improving.

Official data show that the rate of deaths from accidents in industry, mining, and business for every 100,000 employees fell by 13 percent in 2012 from a year earlier.

It did not release total numbers of accidents and deaths.

China’s coal mines are notoriously unsafe. But Geoffrey Crothall, the communications director for China Labour Bulletin, an advocacy group based in Hong Kong, said he could not recall the last time there was a disaster of this magnitude in a factory or production plant.

In 1993, a fire in a toy factory in far southern China killed 87 workers, he said. In late 2000, a fire at a shopping center in Luoyang in Henan province in central China killed 309 people.

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