BEIJING -- A fire swept through a central China shopping center, where a top-floor disco was packed with Christmas revelers, trapping hundreds and forcing many to try to escape out windows. At least 309 people were killed, state media reported Tuesday.
The fire in Luoyang started Monday night in the building's basement, where renovations were under way. It quickly engulfed the entire four-story structure in smoke and flames, an official in the city government's information office said.
Most of the victims suffocated, said the official, who only gave his surname, Li. He said the casualties included dance hall patrons and construction workers involved in the renovations.
In addition to the 309 dead, dozens were injured and sent to local hospitals, state media reported.
At least 200 people were in the fourth-floor disco and construction workers were on the second and third floors when the fire started, the Chinese government's Xinhua News Agency and the provincial television station reported.
The disco was crowded with people attending a Christmas dance party, local newspapers and television said. While it's not a holiday in China, Christmas is fashionable among some younger urban dwellers.
Henan provincial television said the construction work may have been to blame for the fire, but Li said only that its cause was under investigation.
Local news accounts said construction materials may have blocked escape routes, contributing to the disaster.
Footage on Henan television showed flames shooting out of smashed windows on the building's first floor. Firefighters worked in oxygen masks and pump wagons sprayed the building's glass front, which remained largely intact.
One woman was shown hanging out of a window waiting to be rescued, and firefighters plucked some people, children among them, from the upper floors using a platform mounted on a crane.
Shortly after the fire broke out around 9:30 p.m., the dance hall erupted in chaos, the Henan Daily, the provincial government's newspaper, reported.
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 -- her face black with soot, 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.
An employee at a movie theater across the street from the shopping center said smoke poured from the building's top and back. Firefighters and police searched the building Tuesday, keeping the area cordoned off, said the woman, who asked not to be identified.
Some 750 police and firefighters rushed to the scene and extinguished the blaze within three hours, the Luoyang Evening News said.
The stricken shopping center is in the cultural heart of Luoyang, an ancient city on the Yellow River that was China's capital off and on until a thousand years ago.
The fire was the latest in a string of deadly accidents in China, where lax safety regulations are compounded by spotty enforcement. Henan -- China's most populous province -- became a focus of criticism on that count in March, when a fire in a theater illegally showing adult films in Jiaozuo city killed 74 people.
Monday's fire may be China's worst since Dec. 8, 1994, when a blaze killed 385 people -- most of them children -- at a theater in the far western region of Xinjiang. Only one exit door was unlocked when that fire broke out.
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