The Cuban authorities announced that a fire broke out due to a lightning strike in an oil storage facility, which broke out today, Saturday, in the city of Matanzas, where four explosions and flames resulted in the injury of nearly 80 people. Seventeen firefighters are missing.
Firefighters and other specialists were still trying to put out the blaze at Matanzas Supertanker base, where the fire started during a thunderstorm Friday night, the Department of Energy and Mines said. The government later said it had sought help from international experts in “friendly countries” with expertise in the oil sector.
The official Cuban News Agency said lightning struck a tank, sparking a fire, which later spread to a second tank. As military helicopters hovered overhead to throw water on the flames, a thick plume of black smoke rose from the facility and spread west over 100 kilometers (62 miles) toward Havana.
The Matanzas provincial government’s Facebook page said the number of wounded had reached 77, while 17 people were missing. The Presidency of the Republic said that the 17 were “firefighters who were in the nearest area trying to prevent the spread.”
The accident comes at a time when Cuba suffers from a shortage of fuel. There was no immediate word on how much oil was burned or was at risk at the storage facility, which includes eight giant tanks containing oil used to fuel power plants.
“I was in the gym when I felt the first blast. A plume of smoke and horrific fire billowed into the sky,” resident Adele Gonzalez told the Associated Press by phone. “The city has a strong sulfur smell.”
Authorities said the Dubrooke neighborhood closest to the fire had been evacuated, while Gonzalez added that some people had decided to leave the Versailles area, which is a little further from the tank farm.
Several ambulances, police and firefighters were seen in the streets of Matanzas, a city of about 140,000 people located on the Bay of Matanzas.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel traveled to the area of the fire early Saturday morning, officials said.
Local meteorologist Eller Bella showed satellite images of the area with a thick plume of black smoke moving from the fire point westward and eastward to Havana.
“The shaft can be up to 150 kilometers long,” Bella wrote on his Twitter account.