Lightning sparks fire at Cuban oil farm, injuring dozens

Lightning struck a crude oil storage tank in the city of Matanzas, sparking a fire that spread to four explosions that injured nearly 80 people and left 17 firefighters missing, Cuban authorities said on Saturday.

Firefighters and other specialists were still trying to put out the blaze at the supertanker base in Matanzas, which started during a thunderstorm Friday night, the Energy and Mines Ministry tweeted.

Cuba’s official news agency said lightning set one tank on fire and the fire then spread to a second tank.

The Matanzas provincial government’s Facebook page 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 nearest area to try to prevent the spread”.

The crash comes as Cuba grapples with fuel shortages. There was no immediate word on how much oil had burned or was at risk at the tank farm, which stores oil used to fuel power generation.

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

Authorities said the Dubrocq neighborhood closest to the fire had been evacuated, while Gonzalez added that some people had decided to leave the Versailles neighborhood, which is a little further from the tankyard.

There were lots of ambulances, police and fire engines, he said.

Matanzas, which has a population of around 140,000, is 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Havana on Matanzas Bay.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the scene 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 west from the point of the fire and reaching as far east as Havana.

“This plume can be nearly 150 kilometers long,” Pila wrote on his Twitter account.

Robert M. Larson