Thousands of people have been injured and 17 firefighters are missing after lightning struck fuel storage tanks at a bulk tanker port in Cuba, sparking explosions and raging fires.
The fire started during a thunderstorm on Friday night in the city of Matanzas and raged against control on Saturday despite the fire crews fighting to extinguish it.
The official Cuban News Agency said a lightning strike set fire to one oil tank at the Matanzas Supertanker Base and the fire later spread to a second fuel storage container.
At least 67 people were injured in four explosions and 17 firefighters were still unaccounted for, according to Cuban state television. Civilians were already evacuated from the area.
Health Minister Josã Angel Portal Miranda said in a Twitter post that three of those injured were in critical condition and 15 in “grave” condition.
Seven patients were transferred to hospitals in the capital, Havana.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the scene 80 miles east of Havana around midnight on Friday and returned this morning when state television broadcast live coverage of the unfolding disaster.
Mr. Diaz-Canel posted on Twitter before the second blast that first responders were “trying to avoid the spread of the flames and any fuel spillage” into the Matanzas harbor.
A later tweet from his office said Cuba was asking for help from “friendly” countries with experience in the oil sector.
By Saturday morning the fire appeared completely out of control, threatening other nearby fuel storage tanks as smoke reached Havana, more than 60 miles away.
“I was in the gym when I felt the first explosion. A column of smoke and a terrible fire rose through the skies,” said resident Adiel Gonzalez, adding that the city has a “strong smell of sulphur”.
A paramedic at the scene, who asked not to be identified, said by telephone that cold water was being poured onto nearby tanks.
The fire comes as Cuba suffers from daily blackouts and fuel shortages, problems likely to be exacerbated by the fire.
Jorge Pinon, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Latin American and Caribbean Energy and Environment Program, said the area had eight large tanks with a capacity of 300,000 barrels each.
“The area is a transshipment point for fuel to various thermoelectric plants, not just the one nearby, so this could be bad news for the power grid,” he said.