ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This morning in China, a fire roared through a poultry processing plant, killing at least 119 people. Labor activists say it is China's worst factory fire in memory. State media reports that some of the building's doors were locked.
NPR's Frank Langfitt tells us more from Shanghai.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The fire broke out a little after 6 A.M. in northeastern China's Jilin Province. Smoke filled the sprawling low-slung plant, sending at least 300 workers racing for the doors. But employees say some of the exits were either blocked or locked.
People were all rushing, pressing and crushing each other, Guo Yan, a worker, told the state-run New China News Service. Guo said she ran into a blocked fire exit before eventually escaping through an open one.
GEOFFREY CROTHALL: I'm shocked by the extent of the death toll.
LANGFITT: This is Geoffrey Crothall, the communications director for China Labor Bulletin, a workers' rights organization in Hong Kong.
CROTHALL: I believe that it is the worst factory fire in China in living memory. Certainly my colleagues and I cannot think of anything of that magnitude in the last three decades.
LANGFITT: Police are still investigating what started the fire and why so many died.
(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: State-run China Central Television said the country's premier, Li Keqiang, has vowed to punish those responsible.
The Baoyuanfeng Poultry Company is about 60 miles from Jilin's provincial capital, Changchun. The plant employs 1,200 workers and produces about 67,000 tons of chicken products a year. People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, said the factory routinely locked its doors during work hours to, quote, "more conveniently manage workers on a daily-basis."
Crothall, of China Labor Bulletin, emphasized that it's too early to know if that claim is accurate. But if it is, he says, it wouldn't be unusual.
CROTHALL: Unfortunately, it's quite common. Factories are locked from the outside simply because factory owners think that they want to secure their property; prevent people breaking in and prevent workers from going out.
LANGFITT: That's what happened in 1993 in a toy factory in the southern boom town of Shenzhen. Worried about workers stealing toys, managers put bars over windows and locked exits. Flames tore through the plant, killing 87 migrant female employees. Crothall says labor safety in China has generally improved since the 1990s. But today's tragedy suggests it still has a long way to go.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.