Fire at oil facility in Cuba spreads as third tank ignites

HAVANA –

A deadly fire that started at a large oil storage facility in western Cuba spread Monday after flames engulfed a third tank that firefighters had tried to cool as they struggled to combat the massive blaze.

At least one person has died and 125 have been injured, and dozens of firefighters have been reported missing since lightning struck one of the facility’s eight tanks Friday night. A second tank caught fire on Saturday, causing several explosions at the facility, which plays a key role in Cuba’s electrical system.

“The risk that we had announced happened and the fire in the second tank compromised the third,” said Mario Sabines, governor of the western province of Matanzas, where the facility is located.

Firefighters had sprayed water on the remaining tanks over the weekend to cool them down and try to stop the fire from spreading.

The governments of Mexico and Venezuela sent special teams to help extinguish the fire, with water cannons, planes and helicopters fighting the fire from various directions while military construction specialists erected barriers to contain the oil spills. Local authorities have warned residents to wear face masks or stay indoors due to smoke engulfing the region, which can be seen from the capital of Havana, more than 100 kilometers (65 miles) away. Authorities warned that the cloud contains sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other poisonous substances.

Most of the injured were treated for burns and smoke inhalation, with five of them remaining in critical condition. A total of 24 remain hospitalized. Over the weekend, authorities found the body of a firefighter as relatives of the missing gathered at a hotel to await news of their loved ones.

Sabines and Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said it was impossible to search for the missing firefighters due to high temperatures.

The fire at the Matanzas supertanker base in the city of Matanzas prompted authorities to evacuate more than 4,900 people, most of them from the nearby Dubrocq neighborhood. The facility’s eight huge tanks contain oil that is used to generate electricity, although it is unclear how much fuel has been lost as a result of the flames. The first tank to catch fire was at 50% capacity and contained almost 883,000 cubic feet (25,000 cubic meters) of fuel. The second tank was full.

Jorge Pinon, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Energy Program at the University of Texas, said officials should inspect tank walls that aren’t on fire to make sure they haven’t been affected. He also warned that the government must be careful before putting the system back into operation once the fire is out.

“If not, there will be another catastrophe,” he said. “Unfortunately, this will take time.”

PiƱon pointed out that the facility receives Cuban crude -which operates an oil pipeline that crosses the center of the country- to be transferred through small tankers to the thermoelectric plants that produce electricity. It is also the unloading and transshipment center for imported crude oil, fuel oil and diesel, and Cuba produces only half the fuel required to keep its economy afloat.

The fire comes as Cuba is in deep economic crisis and facing frequent power cuts amid a sweltering summer, problems that helped spark unprecedented anti-government protests last year. Authorities have not provided a preliminary estimate of damage.

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