HAVANA (AP) — A fire caused by a lightning strike at an oil storage facility broke out Saturday in the city of Matanzas, where four explosions and flames left nearly 80 injured and 17 firefighters missing, Cuban authorities reported. .
Firefighters and other specialists were still trying to put out the fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, where the fire started during a thunderstorm on Friday night, the Ministry of Energy and Mines tweeted. The government later said it had asked for help from international experts in “friendly countries” with experience in the oil sector.
The official Cuban news agency said lightning struck a tank, starting a fire, and the fire then spread to a second tank. As military helicopters flew overhead, dropping water on the flames, a thick plume of black smoke rose from the facility and spread westward more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) toward Havana.
The Facebook page of the provincial government of Matanzas said that the number of injured reaches 77, while 17 people are missing. The Presidency of the Republic said that the 17 were “firefighters who were in the closest area trying to prevent the spread.”
The accident occurs as Cuba struggles with fuel shortages. There was no immediate word on how much oil had been burned or was at risk at the storage facility, which has eight giant tanks containing oil used to fuel 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 González told The Associated Press by telephone. “The city has a strong smell of sulfur.”
Officials said the Dubrocq neighborhood closest to the fire was evacuated, while Gonzalez added that some people decided to leave the Versailles district, which is a bit further from the tank zone.
Many ambulances, police and fire trucks were seen on the streets of Matanzas, a city of about 140,000 inhabitants that is located on the Bay of Matanzas.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel traveled to the area of the fire early Saturday morning, authorities said.
Local meteorologist Elier Pila showed satellite images of the area with a dense column of black smoke moving from the point of the fire to the west and reaching as far east as Havana.
“That plume can be about 150 kilometers long,” Pila wrote on his Twitter account.
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