17 missing, 121 injured, 1 killed in Cuban oil plant fire

Havana – A lightning-fire broke out at an oil storage facility in the Cuban city of Matanzas, where four explosions and flames left 121 people injured and 17 firefighters missing. Cuban officials said an unidentified body was found late Saturday.

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. Officials said about 800 people were evacuated from the Dubrok neighborhood closest to the fire,

The government said it had sought help from international experts from “friendly countries” with experience in the oil sector.

Deputy Secretary of State Carlos Fernández de Cosio said the US government had offered technical assistance to extinguish the fire. “The proposal is in the hands of experts for proper coordination,” he said on his Twitter account.

Minutes later, President Miguel Diaz-Canel thanked Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their offers of help. A support flight from Mexico arrived on Saturday night.

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.

Roberto de la Torre, head of the firefighting operations in Matanzas, said firefighters were spraying water on tanks trying to keep them cool, hoping to stop the fire from spreading.

Cuba’s health ministry said 121 people were injured, five of them in critical condition. The Presidency of the Republic said the 17 missing were “firefighters who were in the closest area trying to stop the spread.”

Later on Saturday, the health ministry said in a statement that a body had been found and officials were trying to identify it.

The crash comes as Cuba is battling fuel shortages. 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 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.”

He said some people even decided to leave the Versailles district, which is a little farther from the tank farm than Dubrok.

Many ambulances, police and fire engines were seen on the streets of Matanzas, a city with about 140,000 inhabitants, on Matanzas Bay.

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.

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Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

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