TOP STORIES Fire at Cuban oil facility: Dozens injured, hundreds evacuated

Fire at Cuban oil facility: Dozens injured, hundreds evacuated

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HAVANA — Lightning struck a crude oil storage facility on Cuba’s north coast, setting off a fire that injured dozens of people on Saturday, left 17 firefighters missing and demanded the evacuation of about 800 people, according to authorities.

The Cuban Ministry of Energy posted on social media images of the fire at the Matanzas supertanker base in the province of Matanzas, 60 miles east of the capital Havana.

Military helicopters were seen trying to put out the flames, and dozens of firefighters arrived at the scene.

The fire started at one oil tank during a thunderstorm on Friday evening and spread to a second tank early Saturday morning, state media reported. This tank is estimated to have held about 52,000 cubic meters of fuel oil, or over 13 million gallons.

No deaths have been reported as of Saturday afternoon, but 77 people have been hospitalized, according to the Matanzas government. 17 firefighters were reported missing on Saturday morning when a second tank exploded around 5 a.m.

The base, which stores oil for energy production, is located next to one of the main power plants in Cuba. The Caribbean island is already battling massive power outages due to chronic fuel shortages and outdated infrastructure in dire need of maintenance.

While the lights are mostly on in the capital, in the Cuban provinces, home to nine of the country’s 11 million people, hours of power outages have become a debilitating part of daily life in recent months. And because of the lack of diesel fuel, motorists stand in line for days.

“This is a structural problem in Cuba’s power grid, which has been operating for more than 40 years without a scheduled overhaul,” said Jorge Pignon, an energy expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “It threatens the total collapse of the system without a short-term solution.”

The country’s biggest protests in decades were sparked in part last year by power outages and food and drug shortages in a country whose economy has been hit hard by both the pandemic and U.S. sanctions.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the affected area on Saturday, along with the country’s Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz, visited hospitals and met with the injured.

“The dawn will be long and full of suffering, just like last night,” Mr. Diaz-Canel tweeted. “There is no precedent for a fire of this magnitude at a supertanker base.”

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