According to reports, the fire that broke out early morning Monday in the Jilin province’s Mishazi township, was sparked by three explosions. The local fire department linked the blasts to leaking ammonia, a gas that is kept pressurized as part of the cooling system in meat processing plants.
According to State broadcaster CCTV, unidentified workers said the blaze started during a change of shifts at the plant, and may have begun in a locker room at a time when about 350 workers were at the site. The plant is owned by Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co.
Local authorities said the death toll is expected to rise as more bodies are recovered from the charred buildings. According to authorities, it was not was not clear how many workers had been accounted for.
“About 100 workers have managed to escape from the plant, whose gate was locked when the fire occurred,” the Xinhua state news agency 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,” it said.
According to reports, dark billowing smoke caused by the fire could be seen rising from the cement structures of the China poultry plant.
Initial reports say employees raised the alarm about a fire shortly after the 6.a.m. shift started and when the lights went out. Panicked workers rushed to find exits.
“When I finally ran out and looked back at the plant, I saw high flames,” Fengya Wang, 44, was quoted as saying. According to reports, she and three other workers were sent to a hospital in the nearby provincial capital of Changchun.
Emergency exits at some workstations were blocked, some workers said. Guo Yan, 39, was quoted by state news agency as saying she could not escape from her the emergency exit at her work station because it was impassable. She said she was she was knocked to the ground in the crush of workers seeking to escape through a side door.
“I could only crawl desperately forward,” Guo said. “I worked alongside an old lady and a young girl, but I don’t know if they survived or not.”
Reports said calls to fire and rescue services had initially remained unanswered and hospital administrators said they had no information about the injured.
By mid-afternoon, the blaze had been mostly extinguished and bodies were being recovered from the charred buildings.
Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry is a main producer of processed chicken and employs about 1,200 people, according to sources. The plant is outside the city of Dehui, about 500 miles north-east of China’s capital Beijing.
This accident brings attention to the lax safety standards at many Chinese workplaces.
This fire at the Chinese poultry plant that killed over 112 people could also bring renewed focus on Shaunghui International Holdings, the Chinese pork producing company, as it prepares to buy the American meat producing company, Smithfield Foods.
Safety considerations usually took a backseat in China to efforts intended to maximize production and energy efficiency according to Jason Yan, technical director of the U.S. Grains Council in Beijing.
“I’m sure they consider some aspects of safety design. However, I think safety is not the first priority in their design plan,” Yan said.
By Perviz Walji