17 missing, 121 hurt, and 1 Dead in Fire at Cuban Oil Facility

HAVANA — A fire set off by a lightning strike at an oil storage facility raged uncontrolled in the Cuban city of Matanzas, where four explosions and flames injured 121 people and left 17 firefighters missing. Cuban authorities claimed that an unidentified corpse was discovered late Saturday.

The Ministry of Energy and Mines reported that firefighters and other experts were trying to put out the flames at Matanzas Supertanker Base. This was where the fire started on Friday night during a storm. According to authorities, 800 people had been evacuated from Dubrocq near the fire.

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

Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío said the U.S. government had offered technical help to quell the blaze. On his Twitter account, he said the “proposal is in the hands of specialists for the due coordination.”

Minutes later, President Miguel Díaz-Canel thanked Mexico , Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their offers of help. Saturday night saw the arrival of a support plane from Mexico.

According to the official Cuban News Agency, lightning struck one tank and started a fire. The flames then spread to another tank. The blaze was sparked by the presence of military helicopters that dropped water from their wings. A thick column of smoke rose out the building and spread to the west for more than 100 km (62 miles), towards Havana.

Roberto de la Torre is the head of Matanzas fire operations. He said that firefighters spray water on tanks to cool them in an effort to stop flames from spreading.

Cuba’s Health Ministry reported that 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 on Saturday, Health Ministry released a statement stating that officials had discovered a body and were working towards identifying it.

Cuba is struggling with fuel scarcity and the accident occurs at a time when it needs more oil. It was not immediately clear if oil was in danger or how much had been burned at the storage facility that houses eight large tanks holding oil for fuelling electricity-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.”

He stated that some others also left Versailles, which is just a bit further from Dubrocq’s tank farm.

Matanzas was home to approximately 140,000 residents and is located in Matnzas Bay.

Elier Pila, local meteorologist, showed satellite images showing the region with dense black smoke rising from the fire to the west and ending at Havana.

“That plume can be close to 150 kilometers long,” Pila wrote on his Twitter account.

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