HAVANA (AFP) – A deadly fire that began at a large oil storage facility in western Cuba spread on Monday, threatening to plunge the island into a deeper energy crisis as officials forced the shutdown of a major thermal power plant.
A third tank was engulfed in flames at dawn, which firefighters tried to calm as they battled a massive blaze in the western province of Matanza, which began just days after the government announced a power outage in the capital, Havana.
“I am very concerned about the children, the elderly, the economy of Matanzas and the country,” said Dillene de la Caridad, 28. “We don’t know how this will end.”
At least one person was killed and 125 injured, and 14 others were reported missing since lighting hit one of the eight tanks at the facility on Friday night. A second tank caught fire on Saturday, causing several explosions at the facility, which plays a key role in Cuba’s electrical system.
Matanzas Governor Mario Sabines said: “The danger we declared has occurred, and the fire of the second tank damaged the third.”
By late Monday, four tanks had been breached, Lt. Col. Alexander Avalos of the Cuban Fire Department told Cubana TV.
“The fire has expanded even more,” he said.
Firefighters sprayed water on the remaining tanks over the weekend to cool them, but they failed to stop the spread of the fire. On Monday afternoon, the state electric company announced that the fire had shut down a thermal power plant that supplies power to the island’s western region after it ran out of water, according to the official Cubadebate website. No further details were immediately available.
The governments of Mexico and Venezuela sent special teams to help put out the flames, with water cannons, planes and helicopters fighting the fire from several directions as military construction specialists set up barriers to contain the oil spills.
Local officials warned residents not to use face masks or stay indoors given the billowing smoke that enveloped the area and could be seen from the capital of Havana, which is more than 65 miles (100 kilometers) away. Officials warned that the cloud contained sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other toxic substances.
The majority of the injured were treated for burns and smoke inhalation, and five of them are still in critical condition. A total of 24 remain in hospital. Over the weekend, authorities found the body of a firefighter while relatives of the missing gathered at a hotel waiting for news of their loved ones.
Sabine and Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said it was impossible to search for missing firefighters in the high temperatures.
The fire at the Matanzas Supertanker base in the city of Matanzas prompted officials to evacuate more than 4,900 people, most of them from the nearby neighborhood of Dubruk. The facility’s eight huge tanks contain the oil used to generate electricity, although it was not clear how much fuel was lost as a result of the fires. The first tank that caught fire was 50% capacity and contained approximately 883,000 cubic feet (25,000 m) of fuel. The second tank was full.
Jorge Peñon, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Energy Program at the University of Texas, said officials should check the walls of tanks that did not catch fire to make sure they were not affected. He also warned that the government should exercise caution before restarting the system once the fire had been put out.
“If it doesn’t happen,” he said, “another catastrophe will happen.” “Unfortunately, this will take time.”
Binion noted that the facility receives Cuban crude oil – which powers an oil pipeline that crosses the center of the country – to be transported via small tankers to thermal power plants that produce electricity. It is also a hub for offloading and transporting imported crude oil, fuel oil and diesel, with Cuba producing only half of the fuel needed to keep its economy afloat.
The fire comes as Cuba grapples with a deep economic crisis and faces frequent power outages amid a scorching summer, issues that helped spark unprecedented anti-government protests last year. Officials have not provided an initial damage estimate.
Associated Press videographer Osvaldo Angulo contributed in Matanzas, Cuba.
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