Cuban oil depot burns after lightning strike

Seventeen firefighters reported missing amid attempts to control blaze at Matanzas supertanker base

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A fire set off by a lightning strike at an oil storage depot is raging uncontrolled in the Cuban city of Matanzas, where four explosions and flames have injured 121 people and left 17 firefighters missing.

The Cuban authorities said an unidentified body was found late on Saturday.

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

The authorities said about 800 people were evacuated from the Dubrocq neighbourhood closest to the fire.

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

Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio said the US 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 co-ordination”.

Minutes later, President Miguel Diaz-Canel thanked Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their offers of help. A support flight from Mexico arrived on Saturday night.

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

Military helicopters dropped water on the blaze as a dense column of black smoke billowed from the facility and spread westward more than 100 kilometres towards Havana.

Roberto de la Torre, head of fire operations in Matanzas, said firefighters were spraying water on intact tanks trying to keep them cool in hopes of preventing the fire from spreading.

Cuba’s Health Ministry reported that 121 people were injured with five of them in a critical condition. The presidency said the 17 people missing were “firefighters who were in the nearest area trying to prevent the spread”.

Later on Saturday, the Health Ministry said that a body had been found and officials were trying to identify it.

The accident comes as Cuba struggles with fuel shortages. There was no immediate word on how much oil had burnt or was in danger at the depot, which has eight giant tanks that hold oil used to fuel electricity 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. “The city has a strong smell of sulphur.”

He said some people also decided to leave the Versailles district, which is a little further from the tank farm than Dubrocq.

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

Local meteorologist Elier Pila showed satellite images of the area with a dense plume of black smoke moving from the point of the fire and reaching east to Havana.

“That plume can be close to 150 kilometres long,” he tweeted.

Updated: August 07, 2022, 7:25 AM