HAVANA — Lightning struck a crude oil storage facility on Cuba’s northern coast, sparking a fire that on Saturday injured dozens, left 17 firefighters missing and prompted the evacuation of about 800 people, authorities said.
Images of the fire at the Matanzas supertanker base in Matanzas province, 60 miles east of the capital Havana, were shared by Cuba’s Energy Ministry on social media and showed huge flames rising from the facility, with plumes of smoke blackening the sky.
Military helicopters were seen trying to extinguish the inferno as dozens of firefighters rushed to the scene.
The fire started in an oil tank during a storm on Friday night, according to state media, and spread to a second tank early Saturday morning. This tank was estimated to hold approximately 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 Matanzas government officials. The 17 firefighters were reported missing on Saturday morning when the second tank exploded around 5am
Cuban Energy Minister Liban Nicolas Aronde Cruz was among the injured, the president’s office said on Twitter.
The base, which stores oil for power generation, is located near one of Cuba’s main power plants. Already, the Caribbean island is struggling with widespread power outages as a result of chronic fuel shortages and an ailing infrastructure in dire need of maintenance.
While the lights remain mostly on in the capital, in Cuba’s provinces where nine million of the country’s 11 million people live, hour-long power outages have become a grueling part of daily life in recent months. And diesel shortages keep motorists waiting in line for days.
“It’s a structural problem with Cuba’s electricity system, which has been operating for over 40 years without scheduled maintenance,” said Jorge Piñon, an energy expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “This risks a complete collapse of the system without a short-term solution.”
Cuba’s biggest protests in decades last year were sparked in part by power outages, as well as food and medicine shortages in the country, whose economy has been hit hard by both the pandemic and US sanctions. In Havana, where smoke from the Matanzas fire could be seen on the horizon, residents worried that the fire could further 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 make the blackouts even worse.”
Like many residents, Ms. Hernández has had to get used to regular power outages in recent months, often for hours at a time. With dengue fever rampant in the capital, he worries that without electricity he won’t be able to keep the mosquitoes that spread the disease at bay.
“We have a ‘solidarity’ blackout as they call it,” Ms Hernández said. “I’m scared because I have a baby who needs air and ventilation.”
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the affected area on Saturday along with the country’s Prime Minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, touring hospitals and meeting with the injured.
“The dawn will be long and full of agony, as it was last night,” Mr Díaz-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 as a matter of national pride. But after the fire, there were calls from state media and government officials for international help.
“I deeply 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 help from friendly countries.”
Among the countries lining up to help was the United States, with its embassy in Havana tweeting: “We want to make clear that US law authorizes US entities and agencies to provide relief and disaster response to Cuba.”