Havana (AP) — Four explosions and flames left 121 people injured and 17 firefighters missing after a lightning strike started a fire at an oil storage facility in the Cuban city of Matanzas. Cuban authorities said an unidentified body was found late Saturday.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines tweeted that firefighters and other experts were still working to put out a blaze at the Matanzas supertanker base, which started during a thunderstorm Friday night. Authorities said about 800 people were evacuated from the Dubrocq community, the closest to the fire.
The government said it had sought help from international experts with oil industry experience in “friendly countries”.
Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cosio said the U.S. government had provided technical assistance to put out the fires. On his Twitter account, he said “the proposal is in the hands of the experts for proper coordination.”
A few minutes later, President Miguel Diaz-Canel thanked Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their help. A support flight from Mexico arrived on Saturday night.
The official Cuban news agency said lightning struck one tank, starting a fire that then spread to a second tank. Thick plumes of black smoke billowed from the facility, spreading more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) west, toward Havana, as military helicopters flew overhead to douse the fire.
Roberto de la Torre, head of fire operations in Matanzas, said firefighters were spraying the intact tanks with water to try to keep them cool to prevent the fire from spreading.
The Cuban Ministry of Health reported that 121 people were injured, five of them in critical condition. The Presidency of the Republic said the 17 missing were “firefighters trying to stop the spread of the epidemic in the nearest area”.
A body has been found and officials are working to identify it, the Health Ministry said in a statement late Saturday.
The accident comes as Cuba struggles with fuel shortages. There is no word yet on how much oil has burned or is in danger at the storage facility, which has eight huge tanks used to store oil used to fuel power plants.
“I was in the gym when I felt the first explosion. A plume of smoke and terrible flames rose from the sky,” resident Adiel Gonzalez told The Associated Press by phone. “The city has a strong smell of sulphur.”
Some have also decided to leave the Versailles district, which is a little further from the oil depot than Dubroke, he said.
Ambulances, police and fire trucks were present on the streets of Matanzas, a city of about 140,000 residents on Matanzas Bay.
Local meteorologist Elier Pila showed satellite images of the area, with thick black smoke moving west from the fire and east to Havana.
“That plume could be close to 150 kilometers long,” Pilla wrote on his Twitter account.