HAVANA (AP) — A fire sparked by lightning at an oil storage facility is raging out of control in the Cuban city of Matanzas, where four explosions and flames have injured 121 people and left 17 firefighters missing. Cuban authorities said an unidentified body was found late Saturday.
Firefighters and other experts are still trying to put out the fire at the Matanzas supertanker base, where the fire started during a storm on Friday night, the Ministry of Energy and Mines said on Twitter. Authorities said about 800 people were 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 offered technical assistance to extinguish the fire. On his Twitter account, he said that “the proposal is in the hands of experts for proper coordination.”
A few minutes later, President Miguel Díaz-Canel thanked Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their offers of aid. A support flight from Mexico arrived Saturday night.
The official Cuban news agency reported that lightning struck one tank, causing a fire, and the fire later spread to a second tank. As military helicopters flew overhead dropping water on the blaze, a thick plume of black smoke poured from the facility and spread west over 100 kilometers (62 miles) toward Havana.
Roberto de la Torre, head of fire operations in Matanzas, said firefighters were spraying water into intact tanks to try to keep them cool in hopes of preventing the fire from spreading.
Cuba’s health ministry said 121 people were injured, with five of them in critical condition. The Presidency of the Republic said the 17 people missing were “firefighters who were in the nearest area trying 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 accident comes as Cuba faces fuel shortages. There was no immediate word on 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 gym when I felt the first explosion. A column of smoke and terrible fire rose into the sky,” resident Adiel Gonzalez told The Associated Press by phone. “The city has a strong sulfur smell.”
He said some also decided to leave the Versailles area, which is a little further from the tank farm than Dubrocq.
Many ambulances, police and fire engines were seen on the streets of Matanzas, a city of about 140,000 located on Matnzas Bay.
Local meteorologist Elier Pila showed satellite images of the area with a thick plume of black smoke moving west from the fire site and reaching east as far as Havana.
“This plume may be close to 150 kilometers long,” Pila wrote on his Twitter account.