China’s Xi Orders Investigation of Deadliest Fire Since 2000

Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered an investigation into a fire at a poultry plant in the northeastern province of Jilin that killed 120 people, the nation’s deadliest blaze in 13 years.

Xi, currently visiting countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, together with Premier Li Keqiang called on rescuers to make every effort to save lives and pledged to punish those responsible, the central government said in a statement yesterday. Li held a teleconference today during which he received updates on the situation and also gave instructions for rescue work, the government said.

The fire broke out in the city of Dehui after an explosion at 6 a.m. yesterday and was extinguished at noon, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. A leak of liquid ammonia caused an explosion that triggered the fire at the 17-acre facility, state broadcaster China Central Television reported today.

China has struggled to improve building safety, with fires at a car wash, a clothing factory and an agricultural market killing more than 20 people in the past six months. The government in 2010 ordered inspections of shopping malls, hotels, hospitals and other public venues after a blaze at a downtown Shanghai apartment building killed more than 50. A fire at a night club in Henan province killed 309 people in 2000.

About 100 of the plant’s more than 300 workers escaped, Xinhua reported. The gates were locked when the fire began, according to survivors cited by the agency, which said the prefabricated building’s complicated interior and narrow exits hampered rescuers. Seventy workers were injured, according to Xinhua. Authorities have yet to say how many are still missing.

Ultimate Blame

“Recent fires have stirred up a public safety crisis,” a commentary in today’s Beijing News newspaper said. “Though it is the operating companies who should be held responsible directly, the ultimate blame is on the government.”

Yang Dongliang, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, will lead a team set up by the State Council to investigate the incident, the safety agency said today.

The 2010 fire in Shanghai was in a building undergoing renovations that was covered with scaffolding made of flammable nylon netting and bamboo, and was started by sparks from unlicensed electric welders and exacerbated by high winds, firefighters said at the time. Then Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng said the city government bore “inescapable responsibility.”

A district official in charge of construction was sentenced in 2011 to 16 years in jail after he and three others from the city government were found guilty of having taken bribes and misused their authority, leading to the blaze, the China Daily newspaper reported at the time.

Night Club Fire

The 2000 blaze in Henan was at a building that had failed fire prevention checks since 1997, Xinhua reported at the time. That was the deadliest fire since 1994, when 324 people were killed at a cinema in the western region of Xinjiang. A 1977 blaze at another cinema in Xinjiang killed 694 people.

“Any fatal casualties over 100 that’s not a natural disaster will make the government very nervous, in fear of possible social unrest,” Willy Wo-lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said by phone. “This should serve as a big lesson for the government to put on even more stringent safety checks and to crack down on any project corruption.”

Charred Frame

CCTV yesterday showed fire trucks spraying water onto the charred frame of the chicken plant’s roof as black smoke rose into the sky. More than 10 fire engines and dozens of ambulances responded to the scene, the broadcaster reported.

Three calls from Bloomberg News to Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co., owner of the plant, went unanswered yesterday. Dehui is 30 kilometers from Changchun, the capital of Jilin. The company has 1,200 employees and an annual output of 67,000 tons of chicken products, Xinhua reported.

Zhao Xian, deputy secretary-general of the Changchun city government, apologized for the fire, according to CCTV. Changchun is the capital of Jilin province.

Separately, PetroChina Co. extinguished a fire in a tar-oil tank at its Dalian refining complex on June 2, Leng Shengjun, the manager of the plant, said by phone. Two people died and two are missing, Xinhua reported yesterday. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, parent company CNPC said on its website.

— With assistance by Sarah Chen

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