WUFENG, China – Burning incense probably caused a deadly fire at a bamboo temple in China's southeast, one of two weekend blazes that killed at least 93 people, authorities said Monday.
The temple fire killed 40 women, while the other fire at a shopping mall in the northeast killed at least 53 people. They struck Sunday within hours of each other, adding to a string of recent deadly accidents suffered in China (search) despite government promises to improve its disastrous public safety record.
The fire at the bamboo-and-straw temple in Wufeng, a village southwest of Shanghai (search), brought it crashing down on worshippers, state television and the official Xinhua News Agency said. The reports said the women were taking part in "superstitious activities" — the communist government's term for folk religion.
Women used the temple, built several months ago to replace a brick structure torn down by officials, to pray for children who had migrated to cities to work, according to a villager.
"A group of people were doing superstitious activities in the straw house. As they burned incense, it started the fire," said the announcer on the China Central Television midday news. The government's China News Service said the dead were women aged 40 to 84. Xinhua said the death toll rose to 40 when an 81-year-old woman died Monday in a hospital.
Government officials in Wufeng refused to comment.
In the northeast, investigators in the city of Jilin (search) were questioning 36 people in an attempt to find the cause of the fire that tore through the crowded mall, a local official and newspapers said. The city is about 950 kilometers (560 miles) northeast of Beijing.
The blaze apparently started at about 11:20 a.m. in a storeroom next to a boiler room, Xinhua said.
At least 20 people jumped from upper floors, newspapers and witnesses said.
People on the top floor screamed for help for 40 minutes, said Ji Youyou, who runs a noodle stand across the street.
"I saw two men and one woman jump all together," Ji said. "I heard loud thumps when they hit the ground."
Fires, coal mine accidents and other disasters blamed on shoddy construction, indifference to safety rules and other negligence occur frequently in China, killing scores of people at a time.
President Hu Jintao (search) and other leaders have vowed to make safety for ordinary Chinese a priority. But repeated crackdowns and threats to punish negligent officials appear to be having little effect.
In Wufeng, the temple set amid orchards of mulberry bushes in a farm village appeared to have been completely destroyed. Police sealed off the ruins with a line of blue plastic tape and a nylon curtain hung from poles. The ground was littered with bits of blackened straw.
Women sometimes used the temple to burn slips of paper made to look like money — a traditional Chinese method of seeking good luck, said the villager, contacted by telephone. He refused to give his name.
The man said he arrived at the temple hours after the fire.
"It was absolutely horrible, with dozens of black bodies clumped together," he said.
The fire in Jilin took about 260 firefighters more than four hours to extinguish, Xinhua said. A city government spokesman said most of the dead were sales clerks and that firefighters were among the injured.
China has suffered a string of accidents in recent weeks that have killed scores of people.
Thirty-seven people were killed in a stampede in Beijing during a festival celebrating the last night of the Lunar New Year holiday. Also during the holiday, a bus crash in China's southeast killed 24 people.
In December, a gas well blowout in the country's west killed 243 people — leaving villages strewn with bodies.