Cubans awoke to massive blackouts yesterday, with 40% 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 super tanker 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 gasoline and other commodities already had created a tense situation with scattered local protests following last summer’s historic unrest in July.
Lightning struck one fuel storage tank on Friday evening.
The fire spread to a second by Sunday and engulfed the four-tank area on Monday, 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.
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 generated.
One firefighter died and 14 went missing on Saturday when the second tank blew up, authorities said yesterday, correcting an earlier figure of 16 missing.
Mario Sabines, governor of the Matanzas province, about 60 miles (130km) from Havana, quipped the flames spread like an “Olympic torch” from one tank to the next, turning each into a “cauldron”.
Yesterday morning more helicopters joined the effort to put out the fire, along with a fireboat sent by Mexico.
From dawn, AFP reporters saw four military helicopters flying over the depot in Matanzas, dropping sea water in a bid to extinguish the blaze.
“The firefighting teams continue to clear a path to the flames so the teams charged with applying the foam can get to the place,” said Sabines on Twitter.
He added that the smoke from the fire had left visibility at a minimum and drones were being used to provide greater precision to operations.
Firefighters and specialists in fuel fires from Mexico and Venezuela have arrived in Cuba to help their local counterparts.
Each of the eight tanks can hold up to 50mn litres of fuel – three have collapsed while a fourth has been engulfed by flames.
Some 125 people injured by the blaze were taken to hospital with 22 remaining in care.
Some 5,000 people have been evacuated from around the disaster zone, authorities reported.
Daniel Chavez, deputy chief of the forces trying to douse the flames, told local media “we see a change in smoke colour ... 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”.