At least 120 workers died when they were trapped inside a locked slaughterhouse that caught fire at a poultry farm in Dehui, Jilin, yesterday.
State-owned China News Agency reported on Tuesday that 70 people were injured in the fire that broke out in the early hours of Monday morning. It is the mainland's deadliest blaze for 13 years.
The number of deaths is expected to rise, with survivors saying there were about 300 workers inside the poultry farm's No 2 slaughtering and processing unit when the fire broke out at about 6am. The farm is owned by Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry.
There was no official account of how the fire started, although witnesses said they heard three explosions, allegedly caused by leaking liquid ammonia - a common refrigerant used in large cold-storage areas. Others suspected the fire might have been started by an electrical fault.
Xinhua reported that only about 100 workers were able to escape, with the facility's complicated interior and narrow exits hampering rescue efforts.
Many of the workers were believed to have been knocked out by the high concentration of toxic ammonia in the air, China Central Television (CCTV) reported.
A survivor told the Southern Metropolis Daily that only one of the three exits was open. "The entire facility was on fire in less than three minutes," he said.
A worker who requested anonymity told the South China Morning Post it was usual for the poultry farm to lock most of the exits during operation "so workers would not walk about the plant during work hours".
Another survivor, a 44-year-old woman, told Xinhua she fell and hurt herself in a stampede as panicked workers tried to escape.
Witnesses said the pungent odour in the air was still detectable at about 9am. CCTV footage showed dark smoke billowing from the one-storey facility, which was totally charred when the fire was put out at about 11am.
About 100 angry family members of victims gathered outside the poultry farm yesterday afternoon, some questioning the efficiency of the rescue effort.
Police cordoned off the plant and dispersed the crowd at about 4pm, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported.
President Xi Jinping , who is touring Latin America, has ordered an investigation into the mainland's deadliest fire since 2000, when a nightclub blaze in Henan province killed 309.
The inquiry will be led by State Councillor and Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun .
The blaze triggered an online outcry over workplace safety after two other fires, in a granary in Heilongjiang and at a petroleum refinery in Liaoning in less than a week.
One microblogger wrote: "Several hundred were trapped in a fire, with more than 100 burned to death … I only hope that the names of these victims can be published. At least they deserve the dignity."