Cuban officials said a fire broke out after a lightning struck an oil storage facility in the city of Matanzas on Saturday, where four explosions and flames injured nearly 80 people. Seventeen firefighters are missing.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines tweeted, “Firefighters and other experts are still trying to douse the fire at Matanjas Supertanker Base, where the fire broke out during a thunderstorm Friday night. The government later said it had sought help from international experts from “friendly countries” with experience in the oil sector.
The official Cuban news agency said lightning struck one tank, causing the fire and the fire later spread to another tank. As military helicopters took off pouring water over the fire, a thick column of black smoke billowed from the facility and spread more than 100 kilometers (62 mi) west toward Havana.
The provincial government of Matanzas’ Facebook page said the number of injured had reached 77, while 17 were missing. The Presidency of the Republic said there were 17 “firefighters who were in the closest area trying to stop the spread.”
The incident comes as Cuba is grappling with a fuel shortage. There was no immediate word on how much oil had burned or was in danger at the storage facility, which houses eight giant tanks that hold oil used to fuel power-generating plants.
“I was in the gym when I felt the first explosion. A column of smoke and a terrible fire rose from the sky,” resident Adil Gonzalez told The Associated Press over the phone. “There is a strong smell of sulfur in the city.”
Officials said the Dubroc neighborhood closest to the fire had been evacuated, while Gonzalez said some people decided to leave the Versailles district, which is a short walk from the tank farm.
Many ambulances, police and fire engines were seen on the streets of Matanzas, a city with about 140,000 inhabitants and located on Matanzas Bay.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the fire area early Saturday, officials said.
Local meteorologist Elier Pila showed satellite images of the area with a thick plume of black smoke moving west from the point of the fire and reaching Havana in the east.
“That plume could be about 150 kilometers long,” Pila wrote on her Twitter account.