A firefighter helicopter is dwarfed by the plume of smoke coming from an oil tank fire in Matanzas, Cuba on Saturday.
Eight-hundred people were evacuated after an oil tank facility caught fire in the western Matanzas province.
HAVANA - Lightning struck a crude oil storage facility on the northern coast of Cuba, igniting a fire that left dozens of people injured, 17 firefighters missing and causing the evacuation of some 800 people, according to the authorities. Images of the fire at Matanzas Supertanker Base, in Matanzas Province, 60 miles east of Havana, the capital, were shared by the Cuban Energy Ministry on social media and show enormous flames rising from the facility, with plumes of smoke blackening the sky. As dozens of firefighters rushed to the scene, military helicopters were seen trying to douse the inferno.
The fire started at one oil tank during a thunderstorm on Friday evening, according to state news media, and spread to a second tank early on Saturday morning. The tank was estimated to hold some 52,000 cubic meters of fuel oil, or over 13 million gallons.
As of Saturday afternoon, there were no reported deaths but 77 people had been hospitalized, according to Matanzas government officials. The 17 firefighters who were missing Saturday morning were reported to have gone missing around 5 a.m. The second tank exploded around 5 a.m. One of the main power plants in Cuba is close to the base, which stores oil for energy production. The Caribbean island is struggling with widespread power blackouts because of chronic fuel shortages and an ailing infrastructure in dire need of maintenance. While the lights are mostly kept on in the capital, in the Cuban provinces where nine of the country's 11 million people live, hourslong power cuts have become a grueling part of daily life in recent months. The shortage of diesel fuel has had motorists waiting in line for days. Jorge Pion, an energy expert at the University of Texas in Austin said that it was a structural problem with Cuba's electric power system, which has been operating for over 40 years with no scheduled capital maintenance. That puts at risk a collapse of the system with no short term solution. The country's largest protests in decades was prompted by power outages, as well as a lack of food and medicine in the country, whose economy has been hard hit by both the Pandemic and American sanctions last year.
On Saturday, President Miguel D az-Canel of Cuba visited the affected area along with the country's prime minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, touring hospitals and meeting with the wounded. Mr. D az-Canel said on Twitter that the dawn will be long and filled with anguish. There is no precedent for a fire of this magnitude at the Supertanker Base.