A large fire spread out of control at a major oil storage facility in the Cuban port of Matanzas, where explosions and flames left at least 121 injured and 17 firefighters missing, authorities said Saturday.
A huge plume of black smoke, visible for miles, rose hundreds of feet into the air from the fire that has engulfed two of eight large fuel tanks at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, a storage terminal located near one of the country’s most important power plants. Cuba about 50 miles east of the capital Havana.
The fire was sparked by lightning during a thunderstorm Friday night, authorities said. More than 1,900 residents and workers have been evacuated and at least eight people were seriously injured. The Communist Party newspaper Granma said authorities had no news of the missing firefighters late Saturday.
Authorities said the fire caused several large explosions. Fog and the smell of fuel reached the island’s capital, residents reported on social media.
“We are working hard and in very difficult conditions,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel tweeted. “The fire may still take some time to extinguish.”
The terminal is the only one on the island equipped to handle large oil tankers. It’s also where crude oil produced in Cuba is stored, blended and sent to other power plants that feed the electric grid, said Jorge Piñón, a Cuba and energy expert at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It’s the hub of the Cuban infrastructure wheel,” he said. Cuba may be forced to halt its oil production, estimated at about 40,000 barrels a day, if the damage to the terminal is extensive, Mr. Piñon added.
The US State Department said it was offering technical assistance, for which Mr Díaz-Canel said he was grateful. Mexico and Venezuela, which have large state oil industries, were among the countries that sent aid on Saturday, Cuban authorities said.
The communist island is already facing an energy crisis, including blackouts due to fuel shortages and poor maintenance at old power plants. Blackouts have been extended for up to 12 hours in some areas of the island’s interior, causing food spoilage amid intense summer heat and as residents face widespread shortages of food, medicine and essentials. In major cities such as Havana, hourly scheduled blackouts have also recently been implemented.
The energy crisis and deep economic contraction are sparking social unrest a year after mass protests rocked the country.
“It was one punch after another,” said Miguel Bustamante, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami.
Local authorities said on Saturday that the Antonio Guiteras power plant had enough fuel to last just 48 hours after pumping from the Matanzas terminal was stopped.
“If this plant goes out, it’s hard to imagine what will happen to the entire electricity grid of the island,” Mr. Bustamante added.
It was the second major disaster to hit Cuba in recent months. In early May, 46 people died and dozens more were injured when a gas explosion tore through the Saratoga Hotel in Havana, just days before the famous state hotel was due to reopen after renovations.
Dire economic conditions, as well as ongoing political repression, have prompted tens of thousands of Cubans to immigrate to the US over the past year.
Despite last year’s crackdown, more than 40 spontaneous protests have taken place since mid-June demanding the restoration of electricity and civil rights, according to estimates by Inventario, an online publication that tracks data and social media in Cuba.
Internet connectivity has been cut off during protests to prevent residents from immediately sharing videos and images on social media to promote participation. More than 26 people have been arrested by security forces during recent protests, according to Justicia 11J, a Cuban civil society group that monitors detentions in the country.
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