Medical personnel transport a victim at a hospital after an explosion at a factory in Kunshan, Jiangsu province. (Reuters Photo)
An explosion killed at least 69 people and injured more than 120 at a factory in China that makes wheels for US carmakers, including General Motors, state media said, as the country suffered its worst industrial accident in a year.
Chinese media cited the government as saying that the blast in the wealthy eastern province of Jiangsu occurred around 7:30am on Saturday in Kunshan city, after an explosion ripped through a workshop that polishes wheel hubs.
A preliminary investigation suggested that the explosion at Kunshan Zhongrong Metal Products Co Ltd. was caused by negligence after a flame was lit in a dust-filled room, state news agency Xinhua said.
Two officials from Kunshan Zhongrong have been held by authorities, Xinhua said, citing an unnamed government source.
"We heard a really loud blast at about 7 a.m. this morning so we rushed out of our dormitories," said Zhou Xu, a 26-year-old working at a plant across the site.
"First the ambulance came, then as the news surfaced in the media, many families - especially the wives - rushed to the site to see if their husbands were okay."
A security guard from an adjacent factory and who declined to be named said the impact from the explosion was so great that it shattered the windows of his guard house, located about 500 metres away from the site of the blast.
Images online and on state television showed large plumes of black smoke billowing from a white low-rise building. Many of the injured, who appeared badly burnt in scorched clothing, were shown laying on wooden pallets and being stretchered on to trucks, public buses and ambulances.
At the workshop where the blast occurred, state television showed wrecked walls and heavy machinery that was hurled through the window.
State TV said authorities had set up four emergency blood-donation centres in Kunshan to assist casualties, some of whom will be taken to Shanghai and other nearby cities for treatment later on Saturday.
By early afternoon, the police had cordoned off access to the ageing factory. Authorities had also cleaned up the factory's exterior, and a crowd of bystanders and row of fire-trucks parked in the compound were the only outward signs of the calamity that had occurred hours earlier.
Poor safety record
China, the world's second-largest economy, has a poor record on workplace safety. Workers are often poorly trained or ill-equipped to protect themselves from industrial accidents.
The Chinese government said on its website that Wang Yong, China's state councilor, was heading to the site on the requests of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang as a representative of Beijing.
Kunshan Zhongrong could not be reached for a comment. Its website said the firm is wholly owned by an unidentified foreign investor, employs 450 workers and counts General Motors and other U.S. companies as clients.
State television said that there more than 200 workers at the site when the explosion struck, and 45 died immediately.
"Of course, the foreign owner of the company will shoulder the responsibility," said Duan Shenyi, a user of China's microblog Weibo said on Saturday. "But because we lack a workers' union, we do not have enough supervision of companies."
A fire at a poultry slaughterhouse in the northeast province of Jilin in June 2013 killed 120 people. The blaze was blamed on poor management, lack of government oversight and locked or blocked exits.