Lightning strikes Cuban oil tank farm, causing fire, explosions and injuring dozens

Lightning struck a crude oil storage tank in the city of Matanzas, causing a spreading fire that led to four explosions that injured nearly 80 people and left 17 firefighters missing, Cuban authorities said Saturday.

Firefighters and other specialists were still trying to quell the blaze at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, which began during a thunderstorm Friday night, the Ministry of Energy and Mines tweeted.

The official Cuban News Agency said the lightning strike set one tank on fire and the blaze later spread to a second tank.

The Facebook page of the provincial government of Matanzas said the number of injured had reached 77, while 17 people were missing. The Presidency of the Republic said the 17 were “firefighters who were in the nearest area trying to prevent the spread.”

Cuban authorities say dozens of people have been hurt following the lightning strike, fire and subsequent explosions at the oil tank farm in Matanzas. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

The accident comes as Cuba struggles with fuel shortages. There was no immediate word on how much oil had burned or was in danger at the tank farm, which stores oil used to fuel electricity production.

A column of smoke and a sulphur smell

“I was in the gym when I felt the first explosion. A column of smoke and terrible fire rose through the skies,” resident Adiel Gonzalez told The Associated Press by phone.

“The city has a strong smell of sulphur.”

A man is seen pushing his bicycle along a street in Matanzas, Cuba, on Saturday, as smoke billows in the background from a fire at a nearby oil-tank farm. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

Authorities said the Dubrocq neighborhood closest to the fire was evacuated, while Gonzalez added that some people decided to leave the Versailles district, which is a little farther from the tank farm.

There were many ambulances, police and fire engines, he said.

Matanzas, which has about 140,000 inhabitants, is about 100 kilometres from Havana, on Matanzas Bay.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel travelled to the area of the fire early Saturday, officials said.

Local meteorologist Elier Pila showed satellite images of the area with a dense plume of black smoke moving from the point of the fire westward and reaching east to Havana.

“That plume can be close to 150 kilometres long,” Pila wrote on his Twitter account.