BEIJING – There was a loud bang, survivors said. Then the lights went out, and fire quickly engulfed a poultry plant in northeastern China, killing at least 119 workers who were trapped inside behind locked doors.
The fire on Monday, perhaps the deadliest ever in China’s poultry industry, erupted just past 6 a.m. in Jilin Province’s Mishazi township. Authorities said the explosion was caused by leakage in tanks of ammonia, which is used in the poultry industry as a coolant.
At least 54 people were injured in the explosion and subsequent blaze.
As flames spread through the factory, panicked workers were unable to escape, the survivors told Chinese state media, because most of the exits were locked or blocked, forcing them to stampede toward a narrow side door.
“I knew the fire door was blocked, so I went back toward another part of the factory. Everybody was flooding in the same direction in a stampede. I was lucky to crawl out alive,” said Guo Yan, a 39-year-old woman who was interviewed by Chinese state media in a hospital in Changchun.
Why there were not more exits is unclear. Whether processing food or making smartphones, Chinese workers often endure conditions more akin to military barracks than factories, with restrictions on their freedom of movement. Guo told the Chinese news service that workers, who made about $325 per month, were “strictly controlled.”
The fire was one in a string of international disasters that have spotlighted poor industrial safety, including the collapse of a garment factory building in Bangladesh in April, a calamity that claimed 1,127 lives. Employees there had expressed fear that the building was unsafe but were ordered to stay inside and work.
Deadly industrial accidents have accompanied China’s rapid industrial growth in recent decades, despite government efforts to improve safety standards.
Monday’s factory fire was one of the worst of its kind in China in living memory, eclipsing the toll from a 1993 blaze at a toy factory in the southern city of Shenzhen that killed 87 workers, most of them young women, according to the Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labor Bulletin.
Such tolls are more typical of accidents at China’s coal mines, the group said. Just last month, a coal mine explosion in China’s southwest Sichuan province killed 28 people, state media reports said. A 2008 landslide triggered by the collapse of an illegal mining dump engulfed a village in northern China, claiming more than 250 lives.
Government efforts to tighten safety regulations appear to have yielded some results. More than 1,300 people died in mining accidents last year, a drop of more than 30 percent from the previous year, according to official figures. Overall, the number of deaths from workplace accidents fell nearly 5 percent.
Still, critics say deadly accidents remain all too common, with local officials often more concerned about boosting productivity than enforcing safety standards.
The 4-year-old Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co. has 1,200 employees and an annual output amounting to 67,000 tons of chicken products. About 300 people worked at the plant that burned, and police Monday struggled to keep order as distraught families from nearby villages tried to find relatives missing after the fire.
Ammonia is widely used as a refrigerant in meat packing, poultry and other food-processing industries, and frequently causes accidents when it leaks. But the loss of life in the fire was unusual.
“I’ve never heard of any accident of this scale,” said Huang Ming, an industry expert at Nanjing Agriculture University. “If you are using old equipment, there is a possibility of leakage but not a disaster like this.”
The poultry industry in China is already reeling from lost sales as a result of a new strain of bird flu, H7N9, which has caused 35 deaths in China so far this year. Industry losses are estimated by the Chinese government at $6.5 billion.