HAVANA (AP) — A deadly fire at a large oil storage facility in western Cuba spread Monday, threatening to plunge the island into a deeper energy crisis by forcing authorities to shut down a key thermoelectric plant.
Around dawn, flames engulfed a third tank that firefighters had tried to cool as they struggled to fight the massive blaze in the western province of Matanza that started just days after the government announced cuts power scheduled for the capital of Havana.
“I am very worried about the children, the elderly, the economy of Matanzas and the country,” said Dailyn de la Caridad, a 28-year-old resident. “We don’t know how this is going to end.”
At least one person has died and 125 are injured, and 14 others are missing since lightning struck one of the facility’s eight tanks on Friday night. A second tank caught fire on Saturday, causing several explosions at the facility, which plays a key role in Cuba’s electricity system.
“The risk that we had announced has occurred, and the fire of the second tank has compromised the third,” said the governor of Matanzas, Mario Sabines.
As of Monday night, four tanks had been compromised, Chief Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Ávalos of the Cuban Fire Department told Televisión Cubana.
“The fire got bigger,” he said.
Firefighters had sprayed water on the remaining tanks over the weekend to cool them but failed to stop the blaze from spreading. On Monday afternoon, the government’s electricity company announced that the fire had forced the closure of a thermoelectric plant that supplies electricity to the western region of the island after it ran out of water, according to the Cubadebate official website. No other details were immediately available.
The governments of Mexico and Venezuela sent special teams to help put out the blaze, with water cannons, planes and helicopters battling the blaze from multiple directions as military construction specialists erected barriers to contain black tides.
Local officials have warned residents to use face masks or stay indoors given rising smoke enveloping the area that can be seen from the capital city of Havana, located more than 100 miles away. kilometers. Officials have warned that the cloud contains sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other toxic substances.
The majority of the injured were treated for burns and smoke inhalation, and five of them remain in critical condition. A total of 24 people remain hospitalized. Over the weekend, authorities found the body of a firefighter as relatives of those still missing gathered at a hotel to await news of their loved ones.
Sabines and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said it was impossible to search for the missing firefighters given the sweltering temperatures.
The fire at the Matanzas supertanker base in the city of Matanzas prompted authorities to evacuate more than 4,900 people, most from the nearby neighborhood of Dubrocq. The facility’s eight huge tanks contain oil used to generate electricity, although it is unclear how much fuel was lost as a result of the flames. The first tank that caught fire was at 50% capacity and contained nearly 883,000 cubic feet (25,000 cubic meters) of fuel. The second tank was full.
Jorge Piñon, director of the energy program for Latin America and the Caribbean at the University of Texas, said officials should inspect the walls of tanks that aren’t on fire to make sure they haven’t been affected. He also warned that the government should be careful before bringing the system back online once the fire is out.
“Otherwise there will be another disaster,” he said. “Unfortunately, this will take time.”
Piñon noted that the facility receives Cuban crude oil – operating a pipeline that crosses the center of the country – to be transferred via small tankers to the thermoelectric plants that generate electricity. It is also the center for unloading and transshipping imported crude oil, heating oil and diesel, with Cuba producing only half the fuel needed to keep its economy afloat.
The blaze comes as Cuba faces a deep economic crisis and faces frequent power cuts amid a sweltering summer, issues that sparked unprecedented anti-government protests last year. Authorities did not provide a preliminary damage estimate.
Associated Press videographer Osvaldo Angulo in Matanzas, Cuba, contributed.
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