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China seeks answers after 68 die in auto parts factory explosion

Medical staff move a severely burnt victim of an explosion at an eastern Chinese automotive parts factory from a hospital in the city of Kunshan, Jiangsu province, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014  to a Shanghai hospital which is better equipped to handle severe burns. Dozens of people were killed Saturday by the explosion at the factory that supplies General Motors, state media reported. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

Medical staff move a severely burnt victim of an explosion at an eastern Chinese automotive parts factory from a hospital in the city of Kunshan, Jiangsu province, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014 to a Shanghai hospital which is better equipped to handle severe burns. Dozens of people were killed Saturday by the explosion at the factory that supplies General Motors, state media reported. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

Chinese President Xi Jinping demanded harsh punishment for those responsible for an explosion at an auto parts factory that killed 68 people and injured 187 in the country’s deadliest industrial disaster of the year.

Xi sent a State Council team headed by Wang Yong, one of China’s five state councilors, to oversee rescue work and investigate the accident at the plant near Shanghai owned by Kunshan Zhongrong Metal Products Co., the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing a government statement. General Motors confirmed that the company produces parts for Dicastal, a global supplier to the Detroit-based automaker.

The incident yesterday underscores calls by Premier Li Keqiang for safety improvements at industrial facilities in China, the world’s second-largest economy. A fire at a poultry plant in the northeastern province of Jilin in June last year left 120 people dead, and an explosion at a China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. pipeline in the eastern city of Qingdao in November killed 62.

China had 19 serious safety incidents in the first six months of this year, leaving more than 200 people dead or missing, Xinhua said on its microblog yesterday. Premier Li ordered safety checks to prevent similar disasters in the future, and Xi called for those responsible to face unspecified severe punishment, the agency reported.

Initial investigations indicate the explosion at the Kunshan factory in the country’s east, which happened about 7:37 a.m. local time, was caused by sparks that ignited dust in a wheel-hub polishing workshop where about 200 people were working at the time, China Central Television reported, citing the local government. Five executives from Zhongrong have been detained, it said in a separate report.

The plant, located in a development zone in Kunshan city, about 31 miles west of Shanghai, employs 450 people, according to the company’s website. Its operations include plating and polishing of metal parts such as wheel hubs, and customers include GM, according to the website. The U.S. automaker confirmed in an email that Zhongrong is an indirect supplier.

There were 264 people at the site when the explosion happened, according to Xinhua, which said the company is Taiwanese-invested.

Photographs posted on Xinhua’s official microblog purportedly taken from the blast scene showed uniformed medical staff attending to severely burned people lying on stretchers waiting to be sent to the hospital. One picture showed dark smoke billowing from a building, and another showed charred bodies piled on a truck.

Local health authorities said most of the injured were suffering from burns and were being treated in hospitals in Kunshan and the nearby cities of Suzhou and Wuxi, Xinhua said.

Premier Li in December ordered intensified efforts to improve workplace safety in China, after the explosion at a Sinopec-owned underground oil pipeline in Qingdao. Forty-eight company officials were disciplined and 15 faced criminal charges after that blast.

Sinopec, Asia’s biggest oil refiner, said in March it identified 1,100 sections of its national pipeline network that are too close to residential areas.

The fire at the poultry plant in Jilin last year was the nation’s deadliest blaze in 13 years.

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