HAVANA — Lightning struck a crude oil storage facility on Cuba’s north coast, sparking a blaze that injured dozens on Saturday, left 17 firefighters missing and forced the evacuation of some 600 people, authorities said. .
Footage of the fire at the supertanker base in Matanzas, in the province of Matanzas, 60 miles east of Havana, the capital, has been shared by Cuba’s Ministry of Energy on social media and show huge flames rising from the facility, with plumes of smoke blackening the sky.
Military helicopters were seen trying to put out the inferno as dozens of firefighters rushed to the scene. In addition to the 600 evacuees, some 1,300 people have fled the area, according to the office of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
The fire started in an oil tank during a thunderstorm Friday evening, according to state media, and spread to a second tank early Saturday morning. This tank was estimated to hold some 52,000 cubic meters of fuel oil, or more than 13 million gallons.
As of Saturday afternoon, no deaths had been reported but 77 people had been hospitalized, according to government officials in Matanzas. The 17 firefighters reportedly disappeared on Saturday morning just as the second tank exploded around 5am.
Among the injured was Cuban Energy Minister Liván Arronte Cruz, the president’s office said on Twitter.
The base, which stores oil for power generation, is near one of Cuba’s main power plants. Already, the Caribbean island is struggling with widespread power outages due to chronic fuel shortages and ailing infrastructure that is in dire need of maintenance.
While the lights are mostly on in the capital, in Cuba’s provinces where nine million of the country’s 11 million people live, hour-long power cuts have become a grueling part of daily life in recent months. And diesel shortages have motorists queuing for days.
“It’s a structural problem with Cuba’s electrical power system, which has operated for more than 40 years without planned maintenance,” said Jorge Piñon, an energy expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “This puts in danger a total collapse of the system without a short-term solution.”
Cuba’s biggest protests in decades were sparked last year in part by power outages, as well as a lack of food and medicine in the country, whose economy has been hit hard both by the pandemic and US sanctions. In Havana, where smoke from the Matanzas fire could be seen on the horizon, residents feared the blaze would worsen an already difficult situation.
“It looks really terrible because the country is going through a fuel crisis, an electricity crisis,” said Amanda Hernández, 20, a university student. “The explosion will worsen the power cuts.”
Like many locals, Ms. Hernández has had to get used to regular power outages in recent months, often for hours at a time. With dengue fever widespread in the capital, she fears that without electricity she could ward off the mosquitoes that spread the disease.
“We have ‘solidarity’ blackouts as they say,” she added. Hernandez said. “I’m scared because I have a baby who needs air and ventilation.”
President Diaz-Canel visited the affected area on Saturday with the country’s Prime Minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, visiting hospitals and meeting with the injured.
“Dawn will be long and filled with angst, like 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 has avoided development aid out of national pride. But since the fire, state media and government officials have appealed for international help.
“I deeply appreciate the messages of solidarity and offers in this difficult time,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said on Twitter. “Our foreign policy is activated to receive help from friendly countries.”
Among the countries lining up to help was the United States, with its embassy in Havana tweeting: “We want to clarify that US law allows US entities and organizations to provide disaster relief and response. disaster in Cuba.