Jilin fire: Survivors describe 'sea of flames', chaos

BEIJING (AFP) - Survivors of an inferno at a poultry processing plant in China that killed 120 people told of their desperate attempts to save others trapped in the blaze, state media reported on Tuesday.

"It was complete disorder, everyone was running," said Mr Chen Hengwu, a worker who escaped unhurt at the Baoyuanfeng plant after it went up in flames in China's deadliest fire in 12 years.

"When I had run out I remembered my wife was also in the workshop. But there was fire and smoke and it was impossible to go back into the workshop to find her," he added, in an interview with the China Daily newspaper.

His wife, Ms Pan Xijie, who escaped with slight burns, said there were "chaotic" scenes in the plant, the scene of the latest in a series of accidents which have highlighted poor industrial safety standards in China.

A senior official at the processing plant has been detained, a local official told AFP on Tuesday, after the blaze spread in minutes on Monday following a blast suspected to have been triggered by a chemical leak.

"The legal representative has been placed in custody and (the company's) assets have been frozen," an official with the ruling Communist Party's propaganda department in Changchun, who declined to be named, told AFP.

The representative's role in the poultry firm was not disclosed.

The fire at the plant at Dehui, around 100km northeast of Changchun, the provincial capital of Jilin province, started in a workshop which had only one open door, Chinese media reports have said.

"I heard an explosion first, then someone shouted 'Fire!'," 39-year-old worker Guo Yan told the China Daily.

"The workshop was engulfed in a sea of flames. The light went out and people immediately started to run.

"The gate to my workshop was blocked, so I ran towards another exit. Most people were running in that direction as well. Many ran into each other and fell over in a pile on the floor."

Up to 300 people were working inside, media reports said. About 70 people were reported injured, but it was not clear how many were still missing.

The blaze was the country's worst fire for more than a decade, according to listings on Internet portal Baidu. On December 25, 2000, an inferno at a shopping centre in Luoyang, in the central province of Henan, killed 309 people.

Authorities are still investigating the cause of the blaze, according to the Jilin government's official account on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo.

State media pointed to "poor safety awareness and inadequate supervision" causing "a string of work safety accidents that have resulted in heavy casualties this year".

"The accidents are also the result of companies' desire to pursue profit at the cost of safety, as well as the laziness of officials who fail to fulfil their responsibilities," a commentary by state news agency Xinhua said late Monday.

Mr Wang Rulin, party secretary of Jilin, has said the government will assign a "working team" to the family of each victim and ordered officials to "resolutely prevent major mass incidents", according to a statement on the Changchun government website, using a euphemism for social unrest.

He also vowed to strengthen control over the Internet to "resolutely prevent malicious exaggeration, rumours spreading and firmly prevent the misleading of public opinions and the undermining of stability", the statement said.