Cubans woke up to massive blackouts Tuesday morning with 40 percent of the country’s main fuel storage facility destroyed by what officials said was the worst fire in its history.
Reuters witnesses reported the raging flames that ravaged a four-tank segment of the Matanzas supertanker port since Friday had died down and the towering plumes of thick black smoke still streaming from the area appeared tinted gray.
Matanzas is Cuba’s largest port for receiving crude oil and fuel imports. Cuban heavy crude, as well as fuel oil and diesel stored in Matanzas, are mainly used to generate electricity on the island.
The communist-run country, under heavy US sanctions, is all but bankrupt. Frequent blackouts and shortages of petrol and other commodities had already created a tense situation with scattered local protests following last summer’s historic unrest in July.
Lightning struck one fuel storage tank Friday evening. The fire spread to a second by Sunday and around dawn Monday enveloped a third tank that firefighters had tried to cool. It later engulfed the four-tank area, accompanied by huge explosions and despite efforts by local firefighters supported by more than 100 Mexican and Venezuelan reinforcements.
Officials have not said how much fuel has been lost in the fire which destroyed all four tanks.
The first tank that caught fire was at 50 percent capacity and contained nearly 25,000 cu meters (883,000 cu feet) of fuel. The second tank was full.
Authorities stated that no oil had contaminated the nearby Matanzas Bay. Still, they warned residents as far away as Havana to wear face masks and avoid acid rain due to the massive plume of smoke the fire has generated.
Officials have warned that the cloud contains sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other poisonous substances. The plumes can be seen from Havana, more than 100 kilometers (65 miles) away.
One firefighter died and 14 went missing on Saturday when the second tank blew up, authorities said on Tuesday, correcting an earlier figure of 16 missing.
Mario Sabines, governor of the Matanzas province, said the flames spread like an “Olympic torch” from one tank to the next, turning each into a “caldron”.
On Tuesday morning, more helicopters joined the effort to put out the fire, along with a fireboat sent by Mexico.
Daniel Chavez, deputy chief of the forces trying to douse the flames, told local media, “We see a change in smoke color… It seems to be a different day and we are taking advantage of the morning when the sun is not so strong because it is a factor that has an impact.”
The governments of Mexico and Venezuela have sent special teams to help extinguish the fire, with water cannon, planes and helicopters fighting the fire from several directions as military constructions specialists erected barriers to contain oil spills.
The blaze came as Cuba struggles through a deep economic crisis and faces frequent power outages amid a sweltering summer, issues that helped unleash unprecedented anti-government protests last year. Officials have not provided a preliminary estimate of damages.