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17 missing, dozens injured as fire rages at Cuban oil tank farm

Written by Javed Iqbal

HAVANA — A fire sparked by a lightning strike at an oil storage facility raged out of control in the city of Matanzas on Saturday, with four explosions and flames injuring nearly 80 people and leaving 17 firefighters missing, Cuban authorities said.

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.

Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío said the US government had offered technical assistance to put out the fire. On his Twitter account, he said that “the proposal is in the hands of specialists for the proper coordination.”

A few minutes later, President Miguel Díaz-Canel thanked Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their offer of help.

The official Cuban news agency said lightning struck a tank and started a fire, and the fire later spread to another tank. As military helicopters flew overhead and dropped water on the fire, dense columns of black smoke billowed from the facility and spread westward more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) toward Havana.

Roberto de la Torre, chief of fire operations in Matanzas, said firefighters sprayed water on intact tanks to try to keep them cool in hopes of preventing the fire from spreading.

The Facebook page of the Matanzas provincial government said the number of injured had reached 77, while 17 people were missing. The Presidency of the Republic said the 17 were “firefighters who were in the immediate area and tried to prevent the spread.”

Seven of the injured were taken to the Calixto García Hospital in Havana, which has a prominent burns unit.

The accident comes as Cuba struggles with fuel shortages. There was no immediate word on how much oil had burned or was in danger at the storage facility, which has eight huge tanks that hold oil used to fuel power generation plants.

“I was in the gym when I felt the first explosion. A column of smoke and terrible fire rose through the sky,” resident Adiel Gonzalez told The Associated Press by phone. “The city has a strong smell of sulfur.”

Authorities said about 800 people were evacuated from the Dubrocq neighborhood closest to the fire, while Gonzalez added that some people decided to leave the Versailles district, which is a little further from the tank farm.

Many ambulances, police and fire trucks were seen in the streets of Matanzas, a city of about 140,000 inhabitants located on Matnzas Bay.

Diaz-Canel traveled to the area of ​​the fire early Saturday, officials said.

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

“That plume could be close to 150 kilometers long,” Pila wrote on his Twitter account.

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Andrea Rodríguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

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Javed Iqbal

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