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Fire at Cuban oil facility leaves dozens injured, hundreds evacuated

Aug. 6, 2022 Updated Sat., Aug. 6, 2022 at 9:05 p.m.

A firefighting helicopter is seen near the oil tank on fire in Matanzas, Cuba, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
A firefighting helicopter is seen near the oil tank on fire in Matanzas, Cuba, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Ed Augustin and Oscar Lopez New York Times

HAVANA – Lightning struck a crude oil storage facility on the northern coast of Cuba, igniting a fire that on Saturday left dozens injured, 17 firefighters missing and prompted the evacuation of about 800 people, according to authorities.

Images of the fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, in Matanzas province, 60 miles east of Havana, the capital, were shared by the Cuban Energy Ministry on social media and show enormous flames rising from the facility. Military helicopters were seen trying to douse the inferno as firefighters rushed to the scene.

The fire began at one oil tank during a thunderstorm Friday evening, according to state news media, and spread to a second tank early Saturday. That tank was estimated to hold about 52,000 cubic meters of fuel oil, or over 13 million gallons.

As of Saturday afternoon, there were no reported deaths, but 77 people had been hospitalized, according to Matanzas government officials. The 17 firefighters reportedly went missing Saturday just as the second tank exploded around 5 a.m.

Among those injured was Cuban Energy Minister Liván Arronte Cruz, the president’s office said on Twitter.

The base, which stores oil for energy production, is near one of Cuba’s primary power plants. Already, the Caribbean island struggles with widespread power blackouts as a result of chronic fuel shortages and an ailing infrastructure in dire need of maintenance.

While the lights are mostly kept on in the capital, in the Cuban provinces where 9 million of the country’s 11 million people live, hourslong power cuts have become a grueling part of daily life in recent months. And diesel shortages have motorists waiting in line for days.

“It’s a structural problem with Cuba’s electric power system, which has been operating for over 40 years with no scheduled capital maintenance,” said Jorge Piñon, an energy expert at the University of Texas. “That puts at risk a total collapse of the system with no short-term solution.”

Cuba’s largest protests in decades were prompted last year in part by power outages, as well as a lack of food and medicine in the country, whose economy has been hard hit by both the pandemic and U.S. sanctions.

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