MATANZAS, Cuba – A fire set off by a lightning strike at an oil storage facility raged uncontrolled Saturday in the city of Matanzas, 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 quell the blaze at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, where the fire began during a thunderstorm Friday night, the Ministry of Energy and Mines tweeted. The governmnt said later that it had asked for help from international experts in “friendly countries” with experience in the oil sector.
The official Cuban News Agency said lightning hit one tank, starting a fire, and the blaze later spread to a second tank. As military helicopters flew overhead dropping water on the blaze, dense column of black smoke billowed from the facility and spread westward more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) toward Havana.
The Facebook page of the provincial government of Matanzas said the number of 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 prevent the spread.”
Three of those hurt were critically wounded, another three were gravely injured, state media reported.
10:00am: ⚠️ #UltimoMinuto‼️— Gobierno Provincial del Poder Popular en Matanzas (@gpppmatanzas) August 6, 2022
🏥 El hospital provincial Comandante Faustino Pérez refiere que la cifra de lesionados aumenta a 77 personas.
‼️ Se encuentran desaparecidas 17 personas.
✍️ Gabriel Torres Rodríguez
📸 Raúl Navarro #FuerzaMatanzas #GobMtz #Radio26 pic.twitter.com/POEKxYlTjq
The accident comes as Cuba struggles with fuel shortages. There was no immediate word on how much oil had burned or was in danger at the storage facility, which has eight giant tanks that hold oil used to fuel electricity generating plants.
“I was in the gym when I felt the first explosion. A column of smoke and terrible fire rose through the skies,” resident Adiel Gonzalez told The Associated Press by phone. “The city has a strong smell of sulfur.”
Authorities said the Dubrocq neighborhood closest to the fire was evacuated, while Gonzalez added that some people decided to leave the Versailles district, which is a little farther from the tank farm.
Many ambulances, police and fire engines were seen in the streets of Matanzas, a city with about 140,000 inhabitants that is on Matnzas Bay.
Cuban President Miguel 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 from the point of the fire westward and reaching east to Havana.
“That plume can be close to 150 kilometers long,” Pila wrote on his Twitter account.
Photos showed people being treated for injuries at a nearby hospital.
Video sent to Local 10 News showed smoke still billowing from the scene Saturday morning.
There were initial reports of deaths Saturday morning, though state-run media and government officials did not officially report any as of Saturday afternoon.
Related social media:
#Cuban state run media says two tankers are on fire. One of them holds (if conversion is right) 686847 gallons of national petroleum. The other: double the amount of imported oil. A very complex situation says this tweet! #FuerzaMatanza #Matanzas @WPLGLocal10 https://t.co/C4Q9cHnYbg— Hatzel Vela (@HatzelVelaWPLG) August 6, 2022
#CUBA: Check out this video sent to me, taken 10 mins ago from the Versalles area in #Matanzas where the heavy smoke travels over the rooftops of that neighborhood. @WPLGLocal10 pic.twitter.com/taPdye6nIg— Hatzel Vela (@HatzelVelaWPLG) August 6, 2022
Here this journalist says he is exiting the city and urges people living in the Versalles área to leave and get as far as posible from burning site. It’s not an exaggeration he says. Never thought I would see something like this, he adds. #Matanzas #Cuba @WPLGLocal10 https://t.co/UxYgXejuXA— Hatzel Vela (@HatzelVelaWPLG) August 6, 2022
Overnight the official #Cuban presidential @Twitter account posted this #drone video of one of the storage facilities. You can see how close they are which is likely the reason the fire has spread in #Matanzas. @WPLGLocal10 https://t.co/HAmAQmMutD— Hatzel Vela (@HatzelVelaWPLG) August 6, 2022