BEIJING — Fire swept through a poultry processing plant in northeastern China on Monday, trapping workers inside a slaughterhouse with only a single open exit and killing at least 119 people in one of the country’s worst industrial disasters in years.
Survivors described panic as workers, mostly women, struggled through smoke and flames to reach doors that turned out to be locked or blocked.
One worker, 39-year-old Guo Yan, said the emergency exit at her workstation could not be opened and she was knocked to the ground in the crush of workers searching for a way to escape.
“I could only crawl desperately forward,” Guo was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. “I worked alongside an old lady and a young girl, but I don’t know if they survived or not.”
The accident highlights the high human costs of China’s lax industrial safety standards, which continue to plague workplaces despite recent improvements in the country’s work safety record. It also comes amid growing international concern over factory safety across Asia following the collapse in April of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people.
Besides the dead, dozens were injured in the blaze in Jilin province’s Mishazi township, which appeared to have been sparked by three early morning explosions, Xinhua said. The provincial fire department attributed the blasts to an ammonia leak. The chemical is kept pressurized as part of the cooling system in meat processing plants.
It 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.
State broadcaster CCTV quoted workers as saying the fire broke out during a shift change when about 350 workers were at the plant, owned by Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co.
Some employees raised the alarm shortly after the shift began at 6 a.m., and then the lights went out, causing panic as workers scrambled to find an exit, 44-year-old Wang Fengya told Xinhua.
“When I finally ran out and looked back at the plant, I saw high flames,” she said.