Death Toll in China Auto-Parts Plant Blast Rises to 69

President Xi Jinping demanded harsh punishment for those responsible for an explosion yesterday at an auto-parts factory that killed 69 people and injured more than 180 in China’s deadliest industrial disaster of the year.

Xi sent a team headed by Wang Yong, one of China’s five state councilors, to oversee rescue work and investigate the accident at the plant near Shanghai owned by Kunshan Zhongrong Metal Products Co., the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday, citing a government statement. General Motors Co. confirmed that the company produces parts for Dicastal, a global supplier to the Detroit-based automaker.

The incident yesterday underscores calls by Premier Li Keqiang for safety improvements at industrial facilities in China, the world’s second-largest economy. A fire at a poultry plant in the northeastern province of Jilin in June last year left 120 people dead, and an explosion at a China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. pipeline in the eastern city of Qingdao in November killed 62.

China had 19 serious safety incidents in the first six months of this year, leaving more than 200 people dead or missing, Xinhua said on its microblog yesterday. Premier Li ordered safety checks to prevent further disasters, and Xi called for those responsible to face unspecified severe punishment, the agency reported.

Combustible Dust

Initial investigations indicate the explosion at the Kunshan factory in the country’s east, which happened at about 7:37 a.m. local time, was caused by sparks that ignited dust in a wheel-hub polishing workshop where about 200 people were working at the time, China Central Television reported, citing the local government. Five executives from Zhongrong have been detained, it said in a separate report.

The plant, located in a development zone in Kunshan city, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Shanghai, employs 450 people, according to the company’s website. Its operations include plating and polishing of metal parts such as wheel hubs, and customers include GM, according to the website. The U.S. automaker confirmed in an e-mail that Zhongrong is an indirect supplier.

GM has sufficient inventory of parts and doesn’t expect any impact on production, the automaker said in an e-mailed statement today. The company extends its sympathy to families of the victims and those injured in the tragedy, it said.

There were 264 people at the site when the explosion happened, according to Xinhua, which said the company is Taiwanese-invested.

Work Safety

Photographs posted on Xinhua’s official microblog purportedly taken from the blast scene showed uniformed medical staff attending to severely burned people lying on stretchers waiting to be sent to the hospital. One picture showed dark smoke billowing from a building, and another showed charred bodies piled on a truck.

Local health authorities said most of the injured were suffering from burns and were being treated in hospitals in Kunshan and the nearby cities of Suzhou and Wuxi, Xinhua said. The injured face a high risk of death, CCTV said.

Premier Li in December ordered intensified efforts to improve workplace safety in China, after the explosion at a underground oil pipeline owned by Sinopec, as China Petroleum is known, in Qingdao. Forty-eight company officials were disciplined and 15 faced criminal charges after that blast.

Sinopec said in March it identified 1,100 sections of its national pipeline network that were too close to residential areas.

The fire at the poultry plant in Jilin last year was the nation’s deadliest blaze in 13 years.