17 missing, 121 injured, 1 dead in fire at Cuban oil facility

HAVANA (AP) — A fire sparked by a lightning strike at an oil storage facility raged in the Cuban city of Matanzas, where four explosions and flames injured 121 people and left 17 firefighters missing. Cuban authorities said an unidentified body was found on Saturday evening.

Firefighters and other specialists were still trying to put out the blaze at the supertanker base in Matanzas, where the blaze broke out during a thunderstorm on Friday evening, the Ministry of Energy and Mines tweeted. . Authorities said around 800 people had been evacuated from the Dubrocq neighborhood closest to the fire,

The government said it had sought help from international experts in “friendly countries” with experience in the oil sector.

Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío said the US government had offered technical assistance to put out the fire. On his Twitter account, he said that “the proposal is in the hands of specialists for the necessary coordination”.

Minutes later, President Miguel Díaz-Canel thanked Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their offers of help. A support flight from Mexico arrived on Saturday evening.

Cuba’s official news agency said lightning struck a tank, starting a fire, and the fire then spread to a second tank. As military helicopters hovered over the blaze, a dense column of black smoke billowed from the facility and stretched more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) west towards Havana.

Matanzas fire operations chief Roberto de la Torre said firefighters were spraying water on intact tanks trying to keep them cool in hopes of stopping the blaze from spreading.

The Cuban Ministry of Health reported that 121 people were injured, five of them in critical condition. The Presidency of the Republic said that the 17 missing people were “firefighters who were in the nearest area to try to prevent the spread”.

Later Saturday, the Health Ministry said in a statement that a body had been found and officials were trying to identify it.

The crash comes as Cuba grapples with fuel shortages. It was not immediately clear how much oil had burned or was at risk at the storage facility, which has eight giant tanks containing oil used to fuel power plants.

“I was in the gymnasium when I felt the first explosion. A column of smoke and a terrible fire rose into the skies,” Adiel Gonzalez told The Associated Press by phone. “The city has a strong smell of sulphur.”

He said some people have also decided to leave the neighborhood of Versailles, which is a little further from the tank park than Dubrocq.

Scores of ambulances, police and fire engines were seen on the streets of Matanzas, a city of about 140,000 people located on Matnzas Bay.

Local meteorologist Elier Pila showed satellite images of the area with a dense plume of black smoke moving west from the point of the fire and reaching as far east as Havana.

“This plume can be nearly 150 kilometers long,” Pila wrote on his Twitter account.


Andrea Rodríguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

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