A fire sparked by a lightning strike at an oil storage facility in the city of Matanzas raged uncontrollably on Saturday, with four explosions and flames injuring nearly 80 people, Cuban authorities said. Seventeen firefighters are missing.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines tweeted that firefighters and other experts were still working to put out a blaze at the Matanzas supertanker base, which started during a thunderstorm Friday night. The government later said it had sought help from international experts with oil industry experience in “friendly countries”.
The official Cuban news agency said lightning struck one tank, starting a fire that later spread to a second tank. Thick plumes of black smoke billowed from the facility, spreading more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) west, toward Havana, as military helicopters flew overhead to douse the blaze.
The Matanzas provincial government’s Facebook page said the number of injured had reached 77, with 17 others missing. The Palace of the President of the Republic said the 17 were “firefighters trying to stop the spread of the epidemic in the most recent areas”.
The incident comes as Cuba struggles with fuel shortages. There is no word yet on how much oil has burned or is at risk at the storage facility, which has eight huge tanks for storing oil used to fuel power plants.
“I was in the gym when I felt the first explosion. A plume of smoke and terrible flames rose from the sky,” resident Adil Gonzalez told The Associated Press by phone. “The city has a strong smell of sulphur.”
Authorities said the Dubroke community closest to the fire had been evacuated, while Gonzalez added that some had decided to leave the Versailles district, which is a little further from the oil depot.
Ambulances, police and fire engines were on the streets of Matanzas, a city of about 140,000 inhabitants on Matanzas Bay.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel traveled to the fire area early Saturday, officials said.
Local meteorologist Elier Pila showed satellite images of the area, with thick black smoke moving west from the fire and east to Havana.
“That plume could be closer to 150 kilometers in length,” Pilla wrote on his Twitter account.