17 missing, dozens hurt as fire rages in Cuban oil tank farm

HAVANA — A fire caused by a lightning strike at an oil storage facility raged uncontrollably in the city of Matanzas on Saturday, where four explosions and flames injured nearly 80 people and left 17 firefighters missing, Cuban authorities said.

Firefighters and other specialists were still trying to put out the blaze at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, where the blaze started during a thunderstorm Friday night, the Department of Energy and Mines tweeted. The government later said it asked for help from international experts in ‘friendly countries’ with experience in the oil sector.

Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío said the US government had offered technical assistance to extinguish the fire. On his Twitter account, he said the “proposal is in the hands of specialists for the necessary coordination.”

Minutes later, President Miguel Díaz-Canel thanked Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Chile for their offers of assistance.

The official Cuban news agency said lightning struck one tank, causing a fire, and the blaze later spread to a second tank. As military helicopters flew overhead, dropping water onto the blaze, a thick column of black smoke billowed from the facility and spread more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) west toward Havana.

Roberto de la Torre, chief of firefighters in Matanzas, 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 injured had reached 77, while 17 people were missing. The republic’s presidency said the 17 were “firefighters who were in the nearest area to prevent the spread”.

Seven of the injured were taken to Calixto García Hospital in Havana, which has a prominent burns unit.

The accident comes as Cuba struggles with fuel shortages. There was no immediate report on how much oil had been burned or endangered at the storage facility, which has eight giant tanks of oil used to fuel power plants.

“I was at the gym when I felt the first explosion. A column of smoke and terrible fire rose through the air,” resident Adiel Gonzalez told The Associated Press by phone. “The city has a strong sulfur smell.”

Authorities said about 800 people were evacuated from the Dubrocq neighborhood closest to the fire, while Gonzalez added that some people decided to leave the Versailles neighborhood, which is a little further from the tank farm.

Many ambulances, police and fire engines were seen on the streets of Matanzas, a city of about 140,000 inhabitants on Matnzas Bay.

Diaz-Canel traveled to the area of ​​the fire early Saturday, officials said.

Local meteorologist Elier Pila showed satellite images of the area with a dense plume of black smoke moving west from the tip of the fire and reaching east to Havana.

“That plume could be almost 150 kilometers long,” Pila wrote on his Twitter account.

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Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

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