For two days, a thick plume of smoke poured into the air from a major fire that began Friday at an oil facility in Matanzas, Cuba. But late Sunday, the night sky glowed an eerie, orange shade after more fuel tanks collapsed or exploded, sending people running in fear and fanning concerns about an increasing human toll.
As of Monday morning, 125 people had been injured, 17 firefighters were missing, and one responding officer was dead. At least 24 people remained hospitalized, five of them in critical condition, officials said.
The fire broke out around 7 p.m. Friday when lightning struck one of the crude storage deposits at a supertanker base in northwestern Cuba, some 55 miles east of Havana. The flames quickly spread to a second tank, setting off multiple explosions. It also prompted the evacuation of nearly 5,000 people from the neighboring region, Matanzas Gov. Mario Sabines Lorenzo said, according to state media.
But Sunday brought worsening conditions when strong winds fanned the flames, according to Cuba’s Ministry of Energy and Mining. As night fell over the island, the second tank to catch fire exploded and collapsed, spewing burning oil and flames into surrounding vegetation and setting a third tank ablaze. The ignition injured a reporter and two workers from the Cuba Oil Union, the country’s largest oil company, according to the agency.
A third tank is now “under risk” of getting consumed by the fire, Sabines Lorenzo said — clarifying that it hadn’t collapsed, as earlier reports had indicated.
Firefighters were attempting to block the blaze’s path early Monday, he added. Meanwhile, residents, workers and health providers were evacuated from the area.
Social media footage showed what looked like an inferno blasting fire into the sky on Sunday. People screamed “Ay, Dios mío!” — or “Oh, my God!” — as they retreated from their balconies. Some ran in panic as a massive fireball turned the sky orange and gave off ovenlike heat. The night had suddenly turned into day, some said as they recorded.
“Right now the situation is very complex at the #Matanzas Supertanker Base. Explosions continue to occur. The place cannot be accessed,” the Ministry of Energy and Mining tweeted early Monday.
Heavy black smoke had been seen billowing from the facility since late Friday, in a plume that extended some 93 miles westward past Havana and over the sea, local meteorologist Elier Pila Fariñas said on Twitter. Electrical storms forming over the weekend raised the risk of toxic showers, Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment warned. The government agency also suggested the use of masks to prevent the inhalation of dangerous particles.
The situation prompted the island’s government to ask for help from what it called “friendly countries” with experience in the oil sector. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Saturday thanked Venezuela, Mexico, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile for their offers. That day, crews from Mexico and Venezuela arrived to join the firefighting operations.
The United States also offered “technical guidance,” Díaz-Canel said — though it’s unclear whether Cuba has accepted the help. Relations between the United States and Cuba have been strained since the late 1950s, when Fidel Castro instituted a Soviet-allied communist state. Since then, economic and trade sanctions have become the norm — though the severity of the restrictions has changed with presidential administrations. Last year brought another round of sanctions after the Cuban government violently suppressed a wave of peaceful protests — which were triggered by the island’s worsening living conditions, power outages and lack of food and medicines.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Embassy in Cuba noted on Twitter that “U.S. law authorizes U.S. entities and organizations to provide disaster relief and response in Cuba.”
But as of early Monday, crews were still struggling to contain the fire — a dire situation in a country already grappling with regular, hours-long power outages. The combination of decaying equipment, reliance on Venezuelan oil and lack of maintenance had already dilapidated Cuba’s electrical grid, the Miami Herald reported. On Sunday, demand for electricity was far over the nation’s capacity, according to the presidential office.
It’s still unclear how much oil has been lost to the fire — but for many, the scene it produced was nothing short of unbelievable.
“It looks like a battlefield. I don’t even believe what my eyes are seeing,” a Matanzas resident told Americateve journalist Mario J. Pentón.