Havana – Lightning struck a crude oil storage facility on Cuba’s northern coast, sparking a fire that injured dozens of people Saturday, left 17 firefighters missing and prompted the evacuation of about 800 people, according to authorities.
Images of the fire at the Matanzas supertanker base in the province of Matanzas, 60 miles east of the capital Havana, were shared on social media by Cuba’s energy ministry, showing huge flames rising from the facility and thick smoke blackening the sky.
Military helicopters were seen trying to put out the blaze as dozens of firefighters rushed to the scene.
The fire started in one oil tank during a thunderstorm on Friday night and spread to a second tank on Saturday morning, state news media reported. The tank is estimated to hold approximately 52,000 cubic meters of fuel, or more than 13 million gallons.
As of Saturday afternoon, no deaths had been reported, but 77 people had been hospitalized, according to Matanzas government officials.Seventeen firefighters were reported missing Saturday morning when a second tank exploded around 5 a.m.
Among the injured were Cuban Energy Minister Liván Arronte Cruz, the presidential office said on Twitter.
The base stores oil for energy production and is close to one of Cuba’s main power plants. Caribbean islands are already battling widespread power outages due to chronic fuel shortages and poor infrastructure in desperate need of maintenance.
While the lights are on in most of the capital, in the Cuban province where 9 million of the country’s 11 million people live, hours-long power outages have become part of daily life in recent months. Diesel shortages have left motorists waiting in line for days.
“This is a structural problem with Cuba’s power system, which has been in operation for over 40 years without regular capital maintenance,” said Jorge Piñon, an energy expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “This puts the system at risk of a complete collapse, and there is no short-term solution.”
Last year, Cuba saw its biggest protests in decades, due in part to power outages and a lack of food and medicine in the country, whose economy has been hit hard by the pandemic and U.S. sanctions. In Havana, smoke from the Matanzas fire was visible on the horizon, and residents feared the blaze would make an already difficult situation worse.
“It looks really bad because the country is going through a fuel crisis and a power crisis,” said Amanda Hernández, a 20-year-old college student. “The explosion will make the blackout worse.”
Like many residents, Ms. Hernández has had to get used to regular power outages in recent months, often for hours at a time. As dengue spreads across the capital, she worries that without electricity, she won’t be able to stop the mosquitoes that spread the disease.
“As they say, we have a ‘solidarity’ blackout,” Ms Hernandez said. “I was terrified because I had a baby that needed air and ventilation.”
On Saturday, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, along with the country’s Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz, visited the affected area, visiting hospitals and meeting the wounded.
“Dawn will be long and painful, just like last night,” Diaz-Canel said on Twitter. “There is no precedent for a fire of this magnitude at a supertanker base.”
In the past, Cuba has shunned development aid out of national pride. But since the fires, state media and government officials have been calling for international aid.
“I am very grateful for the message of unity And what to offer in this difficult time,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Twitter. “Our foreign policy is set in motion with the help of friendly countries. “
Countries lining up to help include the United States, whose embassy in Havana tweeted: “We want to make it clear that U.S. law authorizes U.S. entities and organizations to provide disaster relief and relief services in Cuba.”