HAVANA — Lightning struck a crude oil storage facility on Cuba’s northern coast, causing a blaze on Saturday that injured dozens of people and left 17 firefighters missing, and authorities said some 800 people had to be evacuated.
Footage of the fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, in Matanzas province, 60 miles east of Havana, the capital, was shared by the Cuban Ministry of Energy on social media and shows huge flames rising from the facility, with plumes of smoke covering the make air black.
Military helicopters tried to put out the inferno as dozens of firefighters arrived on the scene.
The fire started during a thunderstorm near an oil tank Friday night, according to state news media, and spread to a second tank early Saturday morning. That tank is estimated to hold about 52,000 cubic feet of fuel oil, or more than 13 million gallons.
No deaths had been reported by Saturday afternoon, but Matanzas government officials said 77 people had been hospitalized. The 17 firefighters were reportedly missing on Saturday morning, just as the second tank exploded around 5 a.m
Among the injured was Cuban Energy Minister Liván Arronte Cruz, the president’s office said on Twitter.
The base, where oil is stored for energy production, is located near one of Cuba’s primary power plants. The Caribbean island is already experiencing widespread power outages due to chronic fuel shortages and a flawed infrastructure in need of urgent maintenance.
While the lights usually stay on in the capital, in the Cuban provinces that are home to nine million of the country’s 11 million people, hours-long blackouts have become a debilitating part of everyday life in recent months. And diesel shortages have left motorists queuing for days.
“It’s a structural problem with Cuba’s electricity system, which has been in operation for more than 40 years with no planned capital maintenance,” said Jorge Piñon, an energy expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “That jeopardizes total system collapse with no short-term fix.”
Cuba’s biggest protests in decades last year were prompted in part by power outages and a lack of food and medicine in the country, whose economy has been hit hard by both the pandemic and US sanctions. In Havana, where smoke from the Matanzas fire could be seen on the horizon, residents worried that the fire would make an already difficult situation worse.
“It looks really terrible because the country is going through a fuel crisis, an electricity crisis,” said Amanda Hernández, 20, a university student. “The explosion will make the blackouts worse.”
Like many residents, Ms Hernández has had to get used to regular power cuts, often lasting for hours, in recent months. With dengue fever rife in the capital, she worries she won’t be able to keep the disease-spreading mosquitoes at bay without electricity.
“We have ‘solidarity’ blackouts as they say,” Ms Hernández said. “I’m scared because I have a baby that needs air and ventilation.”
Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel visited the affected area on Saturday, along with the country’s Prime Minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, to visit hospitals and meet the injured.
“The dawn will be long and filled with fear, as it was last night,” Díaz-Canel said on Twitter. “There is no precedent for a fire of this magnitude at the Supertanker base.”
In the past, Cuba has shunned development aid as a matter of national pride. But since the fire, there have been calls from state media and government officials for international help.
“I really appreciate the messages of solidarity and offers during this difficult time,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said on Twitter. “Our foreign policy is activated to receive the aid of friendly countries.”
One of the countries lining up to help was the United States, with its embassy in Havana tweeting, “We want to make it clear that US law authorizes US entities and organizations to provide emergency relief and response in Cuba.”