Fire traps hundreds in central China shopping center

BEIJING - A fire swept through a four-story building in central China and trapped construction workers and revelers at a Christmas dance party, killing as many as 309 people, state media reported Tuesday.

Rescuers had pulled out 80 bodies so far six hours after the fire broke out in the building in Luoyang city on Monday night, the Luoyang Evening News' Web site said.

The government's Xinhua News Agency reported 309 dead. It said at least 200 people were in a disco on the top floor when the fire struck, and construction workers were on the building's second and third floors.

A police officer in Luoyang's Laocheng district, where the fire occurred, disputed the death toll, saying only about 80 were known to have died.

Authorities were still looking for the cause of the blaze, which firefighters had put out by Tuesday morning, said the officer, who refused to give his name.

Shortly after the fire broke out, the disco hall erupted in chaos, the Henan Daily, the provincial government's newspaper, reported.

The newspaper quoted eyewitnesses who saw some people jump from the burning building, while others leaned out upper-story windows, not daring to jump.

Firefighters tried to enter the disco but found the smoke so thick they retreated, unable to determine how many people were inside, the newspaper said.

One partygoer, a Ms. Wang - her face covered in smoke, her hands bloody - said she and five or six others jumped to safety from a balcony but she didn't know if her husband escaped, the newspaper reported.

The disco was crowded with people attending a Christmas dance party, the newspaper said. Though fashionable among some younger urban dwellers, Christmas is not a holiday in China.

In its brief dispatch, Xinhua said the fire started at 9:35 p.m. Monday. It said a few dozen people had been hospitalized.

Some 750 police and firefighters rushed to the scene and within three hours had extinguished the blaze, the Luoyang Evening News said.

The fire broke out in the cultural heart of Luoyang, an ancient city on the Yellow River in Henan province that was China's capital off and on until a thousand years ago.

Henan is China's most populous province and its cities have undergone rapid growth. In March, a fire in a cinema in the city of Jiaozuo killed 74 people, among them migrant workers who were using the movie hall as a place to sleep.

China has seen a string of such deadly accidents, which are often blamed on a lack of safety regulations and enforcement.


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