A large fire spread out of control at a major oil storage facility in the Cuban port of Matanzas, where explosions and flames left at least 121 injured and 17 firefighters missing, authorities said Saturday.
A huge plume of black smoke, visible for miles, rose hundreds of feet into the air from the fire that has engulfed two of eight large fuel tanks at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, a storage terminal located near one of Cuba’s most important power plants about 50 miles east of the capital Havana.
The fire was sparked by lightning in a storm Friday night, authorities said. More than 1,900 residents and workers have been evacuated, and at least eight people were seriously injured. The Communist Party newspaper Granma said authorities had no news about the missing firefighters late Saturday.
Authorities said the fire caused several large explosions. The haze and smell of burning fuel reached the island’s capital, residents said on social media.
“We are working hard and under very difficult conditions,” Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel wrote on Twitter. – It may still take some time to extinguish the fire.
The terminal is the only one on the island equipped to handle large oil tankers. It’s also where Cuban-produced crude oil is stored, blended and sent to other power plants that supply the electric grid, said Jorge Piñón, an expert on Cuba and energy at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It is the hub in the wheel of Cuba’s infrastructure,” he said. Cuba could be forced to shut down oil production, estimated at around 40,000 barrels a day, if damage to the terminal is extensive, Piñón added.
The US State Department said it had offered technical assistance, for which Mr Díaz-Canel said he was grateful. Mexico and Venezuela, which have large state-owned oil industries, were among the countries that sent aid Saturday, Cuban officials said.
The communist island is already struggling with an energy crisis, including power outages due to fuel shortages and poor maintenance at aging power plants. Power outages have stretched for as much as 12 hours in some areas of the island’s interior, causing food spoilage amid blistering summer heat and as residents cope with widespread shortages of food, medicine and basic goods. In large cities such as Havana, hour-long programmed blackouts have also recently been implemented.
The energy crisis and deep economic contraction are fueling social unrest a year after mass demonstrations rocked the country.
“It’s been one gut after another,” said Miguel Bustamante, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami.
Local authorities said on Saturday that the Antonio Guiteras power plant had enough fuel to last only 48 hours, since pumping from the Matanzas terminal had stopped.
“If that plant goes out, it’s hard to imagine what will happen to the entire island’s power grid,” Bustamante added.
It was the second major disaster to hit Cuba in recent months. In early May, 46 people died and dozens were injured when a gas explosion tore through the Hotel Saratoga in Havana, just days before the famous state-run hotel was due to reopen after renovations.
Dire economic conditions, as well as continued political repression, have pushed tens of thousands of Cubans to migrate to the United States in the past year.
Despite last year’s crackdown, there have been more than 40 spontaneous demonstrations since mid-June demanding the restoration of electricity services and civil rights, according to estimates by Inventario, an online publication that monitors data and social media in Cuba.
Internet connectivity has been cut off during protests to prevent residents from immediately sharing videos and photos on social media with the aim of promoting participation. More than 26 people have been arrested by security forces during recent protests, according to Justicia 11J, a Cuban civil society group that tracks detentions in the country.
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