HAVANA – Lightning struck a crude oil storage facility on Cuba’s northern coast, sparking a fire on Saturday that left dozens injured, 17 firefighters missing and prompted the evacuation of nearly 800 people, authorities said.
The Cuban Ministry of Energy circulated on social media images of the fire at the Matanzas Supertanker base, in Matanzas province, 60 miles east of the capital, Havana, and showed flames rising from the facility, with plumes of smoke permeating the sky.
Military helicopters were seen trying to put out the fire as dozens of firefighters rushed to the scene.
The fire broke out in one of the oil tanks during a thunderstorm on Friday evening, according to state media, and spread to a second tank early Saturday morning. The tank is estimated to hold about 52,000 cubic meters of fuel oil, or more than 13 million gallons.
As of Saturday afternoon, no deaths were reported but 77 people had been hospitalized, according to government officials in Matanzas. Seventeen firefighters were reported missing on Saturday morning when the second tank exploded around 5 a.m.
The president’s office said on Twitter that among the injured was Cuban Energy Minister Levan Arnt Cruz.
The base, which stores oil for energy production, is located near one of Cuba’s primary power stations. The Caribbean island is already struggling with widespread power outages caused by chronic fuel shortages and faltering infrastructure that is in dire need of maintenance.
While the lights are mostly on in the capital, in the Cuban provinces where nine million of the country’s 11 million people live, hours of blackouts have become a stressful part of daily life in recent months. The diesel shortage has left motorists waiting in line for days.
“It’s a structural problem in Cuba’s electric power system, which has been operating for more than 40 years without scheduled capital maintenance,” said Jorge Pinon, an energy expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “This jeopardizes the complete collapse of the system without a short-term solution.”
Cuba’s largest protests in decades have been driven in part by power cuts, as well as food and drug shortages in the country, whose economy has been hit hard by the pandemic and US sanctions. In Havana, where smoke from the Matanzas fire can be seen on the horizon, residents were concerned that the fire could make an already difficult situation worse.
“It sounds really horrible because the country is going through a fuel crisis, an electricity crisis,” said Amanda Hernandez, 20, a college student. “The explosion will make the blackout worse.”
Like many residents, Ms. Hernandez has had to get used to regular blackouts in recent months, often for hours at a time. With dengue fever spreading in the capital, she worries that without electricity she won’t be able to keep out the mosquitoes that spread the disease.
“We have a ‘solidarity’ power outage,” Ms. Hernandez said. “I’m afraid because I have a child who needs ventilation and ventilation.”
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the affected area on Saturday with the country’s Prime Minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, touring hospitals and meeting the wounded.
“Dawn will be long and full of anguish, as it was last night,” Mr. Diaz-Canel said on Twitter. “There is no precedent for a fire of this magnitude at the supertanker base.”
In the past, Cuba shunned development assistance as a matter of national pride. But since the fire, there have been calls from state media and government officials for international help.
I greatly appreciate the messages of solidarity “And offers at this difficult time,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Twitter. “Our foreign policy is activated to receive the help of friendly countries.”
Among the countries lining up to help was the United States, whose embassy in Havana tweeted: “We want to make clear that US law authorizes US entities and organizations to provide and respond to disaster relief in Cuba.”