China Probes Poultry Plant Fire Amid Uproar Over Safety

china-poultry-plant-fire-june-2013.jpg Rescuers stand near a damaged factory building at the Baoyuanfeng poultry plant in Jilin province, June 4, 2013.

China's state prosecution service has launched a probe into safety procedures at a poultry processing plant where a devastating fire claimed the lives of at least 120 people, official media reported on Tuesday.

The Supreme People's Procuratorate is investigating charges of dereliction of duty leveled at management after the fire ripped through a workshop at the Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co. near Dehui city in northeastern China early on Monday, Xinhua news agency said.

Eyewitnesses described scenes of chaos and a stampede by more than 200 terrified workers for the only escape route, amid reports that many fire escape routes were locked or blocked.

"I don't know how it happened, but the foreman shouted 'fire' and told everyone to run, so I ran," poultry plant worker Wang Xiujuan told RFA's Cantonese service.

"When we got to the exit, people were trampling over each other to get out. Everyone was treading on other people," she said.

"It was incredibly chaotic. Everyone was trying to struggle to their feet and pushing others out of the way to do it."

Exits blocked

Other plant workers told state media that a number of legally mandated fire exits were locked to secure the property and to keep tight control over workers' movements.

Article 24 of China's emergency response law requires that safety exits be kept open and clearly marked, while labor laws also stipulate that safe working conditions must be maintained.

Relatives of those who died in the fire scuffled with police on Tuesday, Reuters reported.

Local residents said police had thrown a security cordon around the plant, as news of the horrific scenes inside the factory began to filter out into the local community.

An employee surnamed Huang who answered the phone at a fire safety equipment company near the Baoyuanfeng plant said she had heard a huge explosion at around 6.00 a.m.

"Then the manager called us and told us something that scared me rigid," Huang said. "He said all the dead bodies' hair had been burned away."

"The police have surrounded [the area], and they're not letting people go in and out freely," she said.

She said provincial level officials had converged on the area in the wake of the fire, which some media reports said had nearly burned out by the time emergency services arrived.

An official who answered the phone at the Mishazi township government, which administers the area, confirmed the reports.

"All our leaders are at the scene now," he said, but declined to comment further. "There's no one here, and I can't answer or comment. We are doing everything we can to put out the fire and to save people," he said on Monday.

Repeated calls to the Dehui municipal government offices returned a busy signal during office hours on Monday, while calls to the Mishazi mayor's cell phone resulted in a message saying the phone was switched off.

Call for workers' supervision

New York-based labor activist Liu Nianchun called on the government to ensure that workers themselves can evaluate workplace safety hazards.

"If the workers were able to play a part in workplace safety supervision, this would help reduce the number of such accidents," Liu told RFA's Mandarin service.

"For the workers, workplace safety is their personal safety, so they care about it a lot," he said.

"They must also allow workers to set up their own autonomous union," Liu added, in a reference to the current ban on unions not backed by the ruling Communist Party's All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

"Only then will workers be able to protect their safety at work, because the official trade union only has the government and Communist Party's interests at heart," he said.

Relatives of workers shouted angrily at police on Tuesday, calling to be allowed to see the bodies of loved ones, and saying the doors of the slaughterhouse had been locked at the time of the fire, Reuters reported.

"My daughter worked there. They haven't given us any explanation. It was time for my daughter to leave work, but the door was locked, so they all burned to death," the agency quoted one distraught woman as saying.

The Baoyuanfeng fire, the worst industrial accident in China since a mine collapse in 2008 killed 281 workers, has already sparked comparisons with a similar disaster at the Zhili toy factory in the southern city of Shenzhen where 87 young workers were killed in 1993.

Reports at the time said the Zhili factory's owners had bribed inspectors to overlook safety violations, and they later served short prison sentences for their role in the disaster.

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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