17 missing, dozens injured as fire rages at Cuban oil terminal
A fire sparked by lightning at an oil storage facility raged uncontrollably in the city of Matanzas on Saturday, where four blasts and flames injured nearly 80 people, Cuban authorities said. 17 firefighters are missing.
Firefighters and other specialists were still trying to put out the fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, where the fire broke out during a thunderstorm on Friday night, the Department of Energy and Mines tweeted. The government later said it asked international experts in “friendly countries” with experience in the oil sector for help.
The official Cuban news agency said lightning struck one tank and started a fire, and the fire later spread to a second tank. As military helicopters flew over the blaze and water dropped on the fire, a thick plume of black smoke rose from the facility and spread more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) west toward Havana.
Roberto de la Torre, chief of the Matanzas Fire Department, said firefighters sprayed water on intact tanks to keep them cool in hopes of preventing the fire from spreading.
The Matanzas provincial government’s Facebook page said the number of people injured had reached 77, while 17 people were missing. The presidency of the republic said the 17 were “firefighters who were in the nearest area trying to stop the spread.”
Seven of the injured were taken to Havana’s Calixto García Hospital, which has a prominent burns unit.
The incident comes as Cuba struggles with fuel shortages. There was no immediate word on how much oil was being burned or at risk at the storage facility, which features eight huge tanks containing oil used to power power generation facilities.
“I was at the gym when I felt the first explosion. A column of smoke and a terrible fire rose through the sky,” resident Adiel Gonzalez told The Associated Press over the phone. “The city smells strongly of sulfur.”
Authorities said the Dubrocq neighborhood closest to the fire had been evacuated, while Gonzalez added that some people had decided to evacuate the Versailles neighborhood, a little further from the terminal.
Many ambulances, police and fire engines were seen roaming the streets of Matanzas, a city of about 140,000 that sits on Matanzas Bay.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel traveled to the fire area early Saturday, officials said.
Local meteorologist Elier Pila showed satellite imagery of the area showing a thick plume of black smoke moving west from the location of the fire and reaching east to Havana.
“This cloud can be almost 150 kilometers long,” Pila wrote on his Twitter account.