Aircraft, firefighters and specialists from Mexico and Venezuela arrived in Cuba yesterday to help put out a massive fire at a fuel depot that has left at least one person dead, 121 people injured and 17 firefighters missing.
The aid teams landed at the airport in the seaside resort of Varadero, 40km (25 miles) east of the city of Matanzas, where two fuel tanks are still burning uncontrollably since a lightning strike sparked the blaze on Friday, authorities said.
A Mexican Air Force Boeing 737-700 landed with 60 military rescue workers and 16 technicians from Petroleos Mexicanos on board, while equipment and firefighting chemicals arrived in a second aircraft.
“We are here to help in risk prevention and to suffocate the fire with water and foam,” said Brigadier-General Juan Bravo, in charge of the expedition.
A Conviasa flight also arrived from Venezuela with 35 firefighters, specialists and technicians from Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), carrying 20 tonnes of foam and other chemicals.
Heavy flames and a tall column of black smoke were rising at the supertanker base in an industrial zone of Matanzas, a city some 100km (62 miles) east of Havana.
Some 1,900 people have been evacuated from the affected area, officials have said.
Provincial health official Luis Armando Wong told a press conference on Saturday evening that a first body had been recovered at the site.
Eighty-five of the wounded have been discharged while 36 are still hospitalised, five of them in critical condition, according to the latest medical reports.
The injured included Energy Minister Livan Arronte.
The president’s office said that 17 firefighters – those “who were closest” to the fire – were missing.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel has expressed thanks to the governments of Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their help.
“We also appreciate the offer of technical advice from the US,” he said.
Diaz-Canel visited the scene around midnight on Friday, then returned to spend the next day co-ordinating the response as state-run television broadcast live coverage of the unfolding disaster.
Before the second blast, Diaz-Canel posted on Twitter that first responders were “trying to avert the spread of the flames and any spill of fuel” into the Matanzas bay.
Military helicopters were dumping seawater on nearby storage tanks as smoke reached Havana and residents were warned to avoid acid rain.
Cuba has been suffering daily blackouts and fuel shortages.
The loss of fuel and storage capacity is likely to aggravate the situation which has led to small local protests in the last few months.
Jorge Pinon, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Latin America and Caribbean Energy and Environment Programme, said the area had eight big tanks each with a capacity of 300,000 barrels.
“The area is a transshipment point for fuel to various thermo-electric plants, not just the one nearby, so this could be very bad news for the power grid,” he said.
Black smoke from oil tanks on fire is seen near Matanzas Bay, Cuba, yesterday.