Blaze at Locked Slaughterhouse in China Kills 119

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 3 2013 12:12 PM

Blaze at Locked Slaughterhouse in China Kills 119

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Firefighters search for survivors at the Baoyuan poultry plant that caught fire in Dehui, northeast China's Jilin province on June 3, 2013.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Imagine trying to escape from a fire only to find that most of the exits are locked or blocked. That was the nightmarish situation for panicked workers at a poultry slaughterhouse in China's northeastern Jilin province on Monday. At least 119 people were killed by the fire that quickly engulfed the plant, according to reports from the ground.

Roughly 100 workers managed to escape from the blaze, but the exact number of those trapped inside is still unknown. The details, meanwhile, are downright horrifying: The plant's complicated interior structure and narrow exits made it difficult to escape, something that according to state news agency Xinhua will likely make rescue work quite difficult as well. It's not clear why some of the exits, including the front gate of the plant, were locked in the first place—but multiple sources are saying that it's not all that surprising, given the strict conditions that Chinese workers often endure. Reuters has more on this:

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Hong Kong's Phoenix Television cited family members as saying that the doors were always kept locked during working hours during which workers were forbidden to leave and that the slaughterhouse never carried out fire drills. China's record is poor. Fire exits in factories are often locked or blocked and regulations can be easily skirted by bribing corrupt officials.

The cause of the blaze hasn't yet been officially determined, but authorities have suggested that an ammonia gas leak—ammonia is used in the poultry industry as a coolant—may have caused the initial explosions that fueled the disaster.

Jennifer Lai is an associate editor at Slate. Slate Plus members, email her here.