China factory blast kills at least 68

Metallic dust buildup thought cause of industrial explosion

Posted: August 3, 2014 at 3:30 a.m.

This photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency shows the site of an explosion at an eastern Chinese automotive parts factory in Kunshan City, Jiangsu Province Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Dozens of people were killed Saturday by the explosion at the factory that supplies General Motors, state media reported. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Wang Hengzhi) NO SALES

BEIJING -- At least 68 people were killed Saturday morning when a blast tore through a metal products factory in China's eastern Jiangsu province, state-run news media reported.

According to the national broadcaster CCTV, 187 others were injured in the explosion, which occurred at 7:37 a.m. in Kunshan, a city not far from Shanghai. Kunshan is home to a number of factories that make components for China's thriving automotive industry.

The victims, many of them young migrant workers in their 20s, had just started the day shift, which begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m., according to local media reports.

The factory, run by Taiwanese-owned company Zhongrong, specializes in polishing metal wheel rims. Its customers include General Motors and other U.S. companies, according to the company's website, which prominently features the slogan "quality and safety."

In a statement, GM confirmed that Zhongrong is part of its network of suppliers.

"We can confirm Zhongrong is a supplier to GM's global supplier Dicastal," according to the statement.

The official Xinhua news agency said five supervisors at the factory were being questioned in what the authorities described as an investigation into potentially criminal negligent behavior by plant management.

The explosion in Kunshan is the latest in a string of industrial accidents that have focused attention on safety records at the tens of thousands of factories that fuel China's economically vital export sector.

In January, 16 people died in nearby Zhejiang province when a fire tore through a shoe factory. Last year, a blaze at a poultry slaughterhouse in northeastern China killed 120 workers; investigators said blocked exits at the plant contributed to the high death toll.

Although the government has in recent years stepped up enforcement of occupational safety standards, industrial accidents claim about 70,000 lives annually, according to figures released last year.

Initial news reports said the explosion in the Zhongrong plant was caused by an accumulation of metallic dust that ignited as workers were polishing wheel rims in a workshop.

An amateur video posted on the news portal Sina showed thick plumes of black smoke billowing over the low-rise plant as a group of people, their clothing burned off, huddled by the factory gate awaiting help. Photos on the site showed victims sitting on wooden pallets and charred bodies laid out in the back of a truck.

Forty people were killed on the spot and the others died "one after another" on the way to the hospital, the People's Daily newspaper reported, quoting hospital employees.

As many as 200 people were working at the time of the explosion, news reports said.

Throughout the morning, critically injured workers flooded local hospitals, which were ill-equipped to deal with burn victims, according an online news service operated by the Oriental Morning Post in Shanghai.

At the Kunshan Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital, relatives knelt on the ground begging for information about their loved ones, the website said. Many of the most severely injured patients were transported to hospitals in Shanghai, some with burns covering 90 percent of their bodies, according to the site.

A woman who answered the main phone line at the Zhongrong metal company said it is a Taiwanese enterprise. She refused to give her name, any other information or the contact numbers of company staffers handling the case.

Calls to the city's government and police rang unanswered.

The accumulation of combustible dust, a byproduct of sanding and polishing aluminum, steel and other metals, is a well-known industrial safety hazard. In 2011, an explosion at a plant that made iPads for Apple killed three workers and injured 15. Investigators later blamed the accident on aluminum dust that had collected in ventilation ducts.

According to the Xinmin Evening Newspaper of Shanghai, some employees at the Zhongrong plant had complained about poor ventilation and the buildup of dust in the polishing workshops. One man told the paper that two of his relatives had described the amount of dust as intolerable. The man, who gave his surname as Wang, said his son-in-law had quit as a result but that a brother-in-law had kept working at the plant. The brother-in-law, he told the paper Saturday, was still missing.

Information for this article was contributed by Patrick Zuo of The New York Times and by Gillian Wong and Henry Hou of The Associated Press.

A Section on 08/03/2014