BEIJING (Reuters) - A blaze at a locked poultry slaughterhouse in northeast China killed at least 119 people on Monday with several still unaccounted for, officials and state media said, triggering online outrage in a country with a grim record on fire safety.
The fire broke out just after dawn near Dehui in Jilin province. The provincial government said it sent more than 500 firefighters and more than 270 doctors and nurses to the scene, evacuating 3,000 nearby residents as a precaution.
China Central Television showed thick black smoke pouring from a low-slung, one-storey building with an arched roof over part of it.
Flames shot through some rooftop vents, and firefighters on the ground and on high ladders poured water onto the roof and onto smoldering debris inside the building.
CCTV showed a backhoe punching through a wall so firefighters could aim more water inside.
“It was so fast - we first saw a flash, then there was a big ‘bang’,” an unidentified employee of the slaughterhouse told CCTV. “We knew it was bad, so then we all ran. We didn’t know what happened, we didn’t know it was an explosion.”
The death toll prompted President Xi Jinping, on a visit to Latin America and the United States, to issue instructions to care for the injured and vigorously investigate the cause of the disaster, holding accountable according to law all found to be responsible, the television reported.
Premier Li Keqiang called on firefighters and other emergency workers to proceed urgently to save lives as the top priority, CCTV said.
Local police said ammonia gas leaks might have caused the explosions, prompting the evacuation of residents, the China News Service reported.
More than 300 workers were in the plant at the time, with employees reporting hearing the bang and then seeing smoke, state news agency Xinhua said.
“About 100 workers have managed to escape from the plant whose gate was locked when the fire occurred,” Xinhua said.
“The complicated interior structure of the prefabricated house in which the fire broke out and the narrow exits have added difficulties to the rescue work.”
The exact number of people missing was unclear, as was the cause of the fire, Xinhua said. The Jilin government said 60 people were injured and had been rushed to hospital.
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.
Victims’ relatives gathered outside the building to “demand the government investigate and announce the cause of the accident as soon as possible”, Xinhua said.
Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television cited family members as saying that the doors were always kept locked during working hours during which workers were forbidden to leave and that the slaughterhouse never carried out fire drills.
China’s record is poor. Fire exits in factories are often locked or blocked and regulations can be easily skirted by bribing corrupt officials.
Jilin is a largely agricultural province and an important grower of corn and soy beans.
The slaughterhouse is owned by a small local feed and poultry producer called Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Company, according to the government.
A fire at a nightclub in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, killed 44 people in 2008. A senior policeman was jailed for taking bribes to allow the unlicensed venue to remain open.
One of modern China’s worst fire disasters occurred in late 2000, when fire engulfed building workers at a discotheque in a mall in the central city of Luoyang, killing 309.
Many of China’s deadly industrial accidents happen in the huge coal mining industry, in which more than 1,300 people died last year from explosions, mine cave-ins and floods.
Additional reporting by Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Ron Popeski