BEIJING—At least 119 people were killed in a fire at a poultry processing plant in northeastern China on Monday, local officials said, in what appeared to be the country's worst blaze in 12 years.
More than 300 workers were at the Baoyuan poultry plant at Dehui in Jilin province when the fire broke out. Emergency workers searching for survivors were uncertain how many remained trapped inside, Xinhua news agency said.
"As of 4:25 p.m., altogether 119 people died," the Jilin provincial government information office said on Sina Weibo, a service akin to Twitter.
The latest post did not say how many were injured, but the local government earlier put the number at at least 54.
It is the country's worst fire in more than a decade, according to listings on Baidu, an Internet portal. On December 25, 2000, a blaze at a shopping centre in Luoyang in the central province of Henan killed 309 people.
The slaughterhouse gate was locked when the fire broke out, but about 100 workers escaped, Xinhua said. The facility had a complicated interior structure and narrow exits that were slowing the rescue work.
Blast, Chemical Leak Suspected
The cause of the blaze, which highlights lax safety standards at many Chinese workplaces, was not immediately clear, but state broadcaster CCTV said eyewitnesses had heard a blast and suspected a chemical leak.
CCTV also said the blaze might have started with an electric spark in the plant.
Six hours after the 6:00 a.m. fire broke out, it had largely been brought under control, but Xinhua added that firefighters were still working to extinguish it entirely.
China's state-broadcaster CCTV showed the plant surrounded by fire engines, with its roof apparently burnt away to reveal charred girders.
A photo taken earlier and posted on a Hong Kong-based online news portal showed dense clouds of black smoke several times higher than the low-rise plant.
A bright blaze could be seen inside a row of windows in one part of the processing plant.
The image could not be independently verified, although the building looked similar to the one shown by CCTV.
Photos from Xinhua showed charred walls and rooftops at the plant, with a row of fire engines standing by.
The Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Company, which began operations in 2009, employs 1,200 people and produces 67,000 tons of chicken products per year, Xinhua said.
China News Service said that as of the end of 2010 it had sales of 230 million yuan (U.S. $38 million).
Lax Safety Standards
Workplace safety standards are poor in parts of China. Fatal accidents happen regularly at mines and factories, with some blaming lax enforcement of rules. But loss of life rare on such a scale as the Jilin fire.
A blaze at a Shanghai apartment building in 2010 left 58 people dead, while a shopping mall fire in Jilin killed 53 people in 2004.
In some cases, owners or company officials have been arrested as a result of workplace accidents.
No arrests were immediately reported, and Xinhua said an investigation into the cause had begun.
Company representatives could not be reached for comment.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013