Fire at China plant kills 119 in deadliest blaze since 2000

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A burnt roof is seen at the accident site after a fire occurred at the Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co. in Mishazi township of Dehui City, Jilin province, China on June 3, 2013. Photographer: Wang Haofei/Xinhua

At least 119 people were killed by a fire at a poultry processing plant in northeastern China, the nation's deadliest blaze in 13 years, as rescuers raced to free others trapped in the 17-acre facility.

The fire broke out in the city of Dehui, Jilin province, after an explosion at 6 a.m. today that was extinguished at noon, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The fire may have been caused by an electrical fault, possibly triggered by the plant's extensive plumbing, and the scene may be contaminated by ammonia, state broadcaster China Central Television reported.

About 100 of the plant's more than 300 workers escaped, Xinhua reported. The gates were locked when the fire began, according to survivors cited by the agency, which said the prefabricated building's complicated interior and narrow exits were hampering rescue efforts.

China has struggled to improve building safety, with fires at a car wash, a clothing factory and an agricultural market killing more than 20 people in the past six months. The government in 2012 ordered inspections of shopping malls, hotels, hospitals and other public venues after a blaze in a downtown Shanghai apartment building killed more than 50. A fire at a night club in Henan province killed 309 in 2000.

"Any fatal casualties over 100 that's not a natural disaster will make the government very nervous, in fear of possible social unrest," Willy Wo-lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said by phone. "This should serve as a big lesson for the government to put on even more stringent safety checks and to crackdown on any project corruption."

Shanghai fire

The 2010 fire in Shanghai was at a building undergoing renovations that was covered with scaffolding made of flammable nylon netting and bamboo and was started by sparks from unlicensed electric welders and exacerbated by high winds, firefighters said at the time. Then Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng said at the time that the city government bore "inescapable responsibility."

A district official in charge of construction was sentenced in 2011 to 16 years in jail after he and three others from the city government were found guilty of having taken bribes and misused their authority, leading to the blaze, the China Daily newspaper reported at the time.

The 2000 blaze in Henan was at a building that had failed fire prevention checks since 1997, Xinhua reported at the time. That was the deadliest fire since 1994, when 324 people were killed at a cinema in the western province of Xinjiang. A 1977 blaze at another cinema in Xinjiang killed 694 people.

Charred frame

CCTV today showed fire trucks spraying water onto the charred frame of the chicken plant's roof as black smoke rose into the sky. More than 10 fire engines and dozens of ambulances responded to the scene, the broadcaster reported.

Three calls from Bloomberg News to Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co., owner of the plant, went unanswered today. Dehui is 30 kilometers from Changchun, the capital of Jilin. The company has 1,200 employees and an annual output of 67,000 tons of chicken products, Xinhua reported.

Separately, PetroChina Co. (857) extinguished a fire in a tar-oil tank at its Dalian refining complex yesterday, Leng Shengjun, the manager of the plant, said by phone. Two people were injured and two are missing, and the cause of the fire is still under investigation, parent company CNPC said on its website.

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