BEIJING (AP) — A massive fire broke out at a poultry plant in northeastern China early Monday, trapping workers inside a cluttered slaughterhouse and killing at least 113 people, reports and officials said.
Several dozen people also were hurt in the blaze in Jilin province's Mishazi township, which appeared to have been sparked by three early-morning explosions, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The provincial fire department, on its microblog, attributed the blasts to a leak of ammonia, a gas that is kept pressurized as part of the cooling system in meat processing plants.
State broadcaster CCTV quoted unidentified workers as saying the fire broke out during a change of shifts at the plant, owned by Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co., and may have originated in a locker room at a time when about 350 workers were at the site.
It wasn't clear how many workers had been accounted for and a provincial government media official, who refused to give his name, said he expected the death toll to rise further as more bodies were recovered from the charred bulding.
The plant's "complicated" interior, narrow exits and a locked front gate made escape difficult, Xinhua quoted survivors as saying.
Some employees raised the alarm about a fire shortly after a shift began at 6 a.m., and then the lights went out, spiking the level of panic as workers rushed 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," Wang was quoted as saying. Xinhua said she and three other workers were sent to a hospital in the nearby provincial capital of Changchun.
Another worker quoted by Xinhua, 39-year-old Guo Yan, said the emergency exit at her workstation was blocked and 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 was quoted as saying. "I worked alongside an old lady and a young girl, but I don't know if they survived or not."
The disaster killed 113 people, and 54 people were being treated in hospitals, the provincial government said on its microblog. Calls to fire and rescue services rang unanswered and hospital administrators said they had no information about the injured.
By about noon, the fire had been mostly extinguished and bodies were being recovered from the charred buildings. CCTV footage showed dark smoke billowing up from the prefabricated cement structures topped with corrugated iron roofs.
The fire highlighted the lax safety standards at many Chinese workplaces.
It could also focus renewed scrutiny on China's biggest pork producer, Shuanghui International — unrelated to the poultry plant — as it aims to buy U.S. food giant Smithfield in what would be China's biggest takeover of an American company.
Jason Yan, technical director of the U.S. Grains Council, in Beijing, said safety considerations usually took a backseat in China to features designed to maximize production and energy efficiency.
"I'm sure they consider some aspects of safety design. However, I think safety, to me, is not the first priority in their design plan," Yan said.
Jilin Baoyuanfeng produces 67,000 tons of processed chicken per year and employs about 1,200 people. The plant is located outside the city of Dehui, about 800 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of China's capital, Beijing.
AP writer Gillian Wong contributed to this report.