Survivors described workers, mostly women, struggling through smoke and flames to reach doors that turned out to be locked or blocked.
One worker, 39-year-old Guo Yan, said the emergency exit at her workstation could not be opened and she was knocked to the ground in the crush of workers searching for a way to escape the fire Monday.
“I could only crawl desperately forward,” Guo was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. “I worked alongside an old lady and a young girl, but I don’t know if they survived or not.”
The accident highlights the high human costs of China’s lax industrial safety standards, which continue to endanger workers despite recent improvements in the country’s work safety record. It also comes amid growing international concern over factory safety across Asia following the collapse in April of a garment factory building in Bangladesh where more than 1,100 people died.
Besides the dead, dozens were injured in the blaze in Jilin province’s Mishazi township, which appeared to have been sparked by three early morning explosions, Xinhua said. The provincial fire department attributed the blasts to an ammonia leak. The chemical is kept pressurized as part of the cooling system in meat processing plants.
It was one of China’s worst recent industrial disasters, with the death toll the highest since a September 2008 mining cave-in that claimed 281 lives.
State broadcaster CCTV quoted workers as saying the fire broke out during a shift change when about 350 workers were at the plant, owned by Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co.
Some employees raised the alarm shortly after the shift began at 6 a.m., and then the lights went out, causing panic as workers scrambled to find an exit, 44-year-old Wang Fengya told Xinhua.
“When I finally ran out and looked back at the plant, I saw high flames,” she said.
The fire broke out in a factory building where chickens were being dismembered, and spread rapidly, with industrial boilers exploding, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported on its microblog. Only a side door to the building was open with the rest of the exits locked, the newspaper said.
It quoted an unidentified worker as saying the fire engulfed the building in three minutes, leaving too little time for many to flee.
The disaster killed 119 people and injured a further 70, Xinhua said Tuesday. Most of the injured were being treated for inhalation of toxic gases, such as ammonia, while others had burns. It wasn’t immediately clear if the workers were local residents or migrants from other areas.
A provincial government media official, who refused to give his name, said he expected the death toll to rise as more bodies were recovered from the charred building.
The fire was extinguished by some 500 firefighters and bodies were being recovered from the charred buildings. CCTV footage showed dark smoke billowing from the prefabricated cement structures topped with corrugated iron roofs.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top leaders ordered that no effort be spared to rescue and treat survivors, as well as to investigate the cause of the disaster.
It was the third major industrial blaze to be reported in China in the past four days. The two earlier fires were an oil tank explosion in Liaoning province that caused another oil tank to catch fire, killing two, and a blaze in a large granary in Heilongjiang province that wiped out 1,000 tons of grain.
Many of China’s factories were built in recent decades to drive the country’s rapid economic growth, and accidents and chemical spills are common, often blamed on lax enforcement of safety rules and poor worker training.
The government has tightened checks on factories and mines to improve compliance with safety requirements, and deaths from workplace accidents fell nearly 5 percent last year from the previous year, according to Yang Dongliang, head of the State Administration of Work Safety.
Even in China’s notoriously deadly coal mines, the death toll fell by more than 30 percent last year because of stricter management.
Jason Yan, technical director in Beijing of the U.S. Grains Council, said safety considerations usually take a back seat in China to features designed to maximize production and energy efficiency.
“I’m sure they consider some aspects of safety design. However, I think safety … is not the first priority in their design plan,” Yan said.
The poultry plant is one of several in the area where chickens are slaughtered and then quickly cut up into pieces and shipped to market. The process takes place in near-freezing conditions and plants are usually built with large amounts of flammable foam insulation to keep temperatures constant.
Established in 2009, Jilin Baoyuanfeng produces 67,000 tons of processed chicken per year and employs about 1,200 people. It serves markets in 20 cities nationwide and has won numerous awards for its contribution to the local economy, according to online postings. The plant is located outside the city of Dehui, about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northeast of China’s capital, Beijing.
The area is an agribusiness center, especially for poultry. Nearby is one of the biggest producers of broiler chickens in China, Jilin Deda Co., which is partly owned by Thailand-based conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group.
Monday’s fire hit a company that is much smaller than Jilin Deda. Though it’s unlikely to have an impact on China’s chicken supply, the accident came as chicken producers were seeing sales recover after an outbreak of a deadly new strain of bird flu, H7N9, briefly scared the public in April and early May.