China factory fire kills 120

Families and relatives of those killed in Chinese factory fire demand answers.


DEHUI/CHINA - Relatives of workers killed as fire swept through a poultry slaughterhouse in rural northeast China blocked traffic and scuffled with police on Tuesday demanding answers to one of China's worst industrial disasters in recent years. At least 120 people died.

A handful of men and woman knelt in the middle of the road in Dehui in Jilin province to stop cars, while a crowd of more than 100 people gathered around them. Police dispersed the protesters after about an hour.

Zhao Zhenchun, who lost both his wife and his sister in the fire, said human error was to blame for the death toll. "I don't think safety was being managed properly. This should never happen again. They paid the price with their blood. So many of these big disasters in China are caused by lax supervision," he said.

The workplace safety record in the world's second-largest economy is poor. Fire exits in factories are often locked to prevent workers taking time off or stealing things, or blocked entirely, and regulations are easily skirted by bribing corrupt officials.

It is a record that will likely prompt concerns overseas as Chinese companies buy stakes in and take over foreign food producers, such as Shuanghui International Holdings' record $7.1 billion deal, including debt, to buy leading US pork producer Smithfield Foods.

State news agency Xinhua said those suspected of being responsible for the accident had been taken into police custody for further inquiries.

Local police said ammonia gas leaks could have caused the explosions in the plant, the _Chinese News Service _said. The slaughterhouse is owned by Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co, a small local feed and poultry producer.

It is believed more than 300 workers were in the plant on Monday, with employees saying they heard a bang and then saw smoke, Xinhua reported. Around 100 workers managed to escape from the plant, whose gate was locked when the fire broke out, it added. Nearby houses were evacuated.

The death toll prompted President Xi Jinping - on a visit to Costa Rica before he heads to the United States for a meeting with US President Barack Obama on Friday - to instruct the authorities to care for the injured and find out what caused the disaster, Xinhua said.

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 collapses and floods.

Jilin is a largely agricultural province and an important producer of corn and soybeans.