HAVANA (Associated Press) – A fire in the Cuban city of Matanzas was triggered by a lightning strike, with four explosions and flames leaving 121 people injured and 17 firefighters missing. Cuban authorities said an unidentified body was found late Saturday.
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. Authorities said about 800 people were evacuated from the Dubruk neighborhood closest to the fire.
The government said it had sought help from international experts in “friendly countries” with expertise in the oil sector.
Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cosio said the US government had offered technical assistance to put out the fire. And he said in his account on Twitter that “the proposal is in the hands of specialists for due coordination.”
Minutes later, President Miguel Diaz-Canel thanked Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their offers of assistance. A support flight arrived from Mexico on Saturday evening.
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.
Roberto de la Torre, Matanzas’ head of fire operations, said firefighters were spraying water on intact tanks in an effort to keep them cool in hopes of preventing the spread of the blaze.
The Cuban Ministry of Health reported that 121 people were infected, five of whom are in critical condition. The Presidency of the Republic said that the seventeen missing were “firefighters who were in the nearest area trying to prevent the spread.”
Later Saturday, the Health Ministry said in a statement that a body had been found and that officials were trying to identify it.
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. The city has a strong sulfur smell,” Adele Gonzalez, a resident, told the Associated Press by phone.
Some people, he said, have also decided to leave the Versailles region, which is a little further from the tank farm than Dubruc.
Several ambulances, police and fire engines were seen on the streets of Matanzas, a city of about 140,000 people located on the Gulf of Matanzas.
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.