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17 firefighters missing, dozens of people hurt as fire rages in Cuban oil tank farm

People watch as a huge plume of smoke rises over a body of water
A huge plume of smoke rises from a fire in an oil tank farm in Matanzas, Cuba.
(Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press)

A fire ignited by a lightning strike at an oil storage facility raged uncontrolled Saturday in the Cuban city of Matanzas, where four explosions and flames injured nearly 80 people and left 17 firefighters missing, authorities said.

Firefighters and other specialists were still trying to quell the blaze at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, where the fire began during a thunderstorm Friday night, the Ministry of Energy and Mines said on Twitter.

The government said later that it had asked for help from international experts in “friendly countries” with experience in the oil sector.

The official Cuban News Agency said lightning hit one tank, starting a fire, and the blaze spread to a second tank.

As military helicopters flew overhead dropping water on the blaze, a dense column of black smoke billowed from the facility and spread westward more than 60 miles toward Havana.

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The Facebook page of the provincial government of Matanzas said the number of injured had reached 77, with 17 people missing. The president’s office said the missing were all “firefighters who were in the nearest area trying to prevent the spread.”

Among the strategies health officials recommend are staying up to date on vaccinations, improving indoor air quality, promoting good hand hygiene and supporting access to testing.

The accident comes as Cuba struggles with fuel shortages. There was no immediate word on how much oil had burned or was in danger at the storage facility, which has eight giant tanks that hold oil used to fuel power-generating plants.

“I was in the gym when I felt the first explosion. A column of smoke and terrible fire rose through the skies,” resident Adiel Gonzalez told the Associated Press by phone. “The city has a strong smell of sulfur.”

Authorities said the Dubrocq neighborhood closest to the fire was evacuated. Gonzalez added that some people decided to leave the Versailles district, which is a little farther from the tank farm.

Many ambulances, police and fire engines were seen in the streets of Matanzas, a northern city of about 140,000 on Matanzas Bay.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel traveled to the area of the fire early Saturday, officials said.

Satellite images showed a dense plume of black smoke moving from the point of the fire westward and reaching east to Havana.

The plume might be more than 90 miles long, local meteorologist Elier Pila tweeted.


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