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Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Nora Gámez Torres

As Cuba struggles to put out oil tank fire, questions about disaster response mount

Cuban authorities were still struggling Monday to contain a raging fire at an oil storage facility at the port of Matanzas, after new explosions spread the flames to other oil tanks, raising questions about the country’s disaster preparedness and its ongoing energy crisis.

According to the government’s version of events, the fire started around 7 p.m. Friday when lightning struck a crude-oil storage tank in the unloading area in the port known as the Matanzas Supertanker Base. The fire extended to a second tank on Saturday and the third one on Monday.

Local authorities and state media outlets have published contradictory information, but the governor of Matanzas, Mario Sabines Lorenzo, confirmed Monday morning that a third tank was burning.

“Indeed, the risk that we had announced occurred, and the fire in the second tank compromised the third tank, which is now burning,” he said.

The storage facility at the port of Matanzas has eight tanks.

Sabines Lorenzo said the second tank exploded late at night on Friday, spilled oil and spread the flames to a third tank and back again to the one where the fire ignited first, which is burning again. Previously, authorities had said they were able to extinguish the fire in the tank that was struck by lighting.

Three people suffered minor injuries after the second tank collapsed.

A large explosion was captured live during a television news program on state media on Monday afternoon around 2 p.m., showing flames and a dense cloud of smoke. Another one happened around 5 p.m., according to images shared on state television.

Health authorities have advised Matanzas residents to use face masks and avoid exposure to the gases and rain but have said little about the environmental consequences of the disaster.

More than 4,000 residents of nearby areas have been evacuated, but local government officials insisted the city of Matanzas, on the other side of the bay, is not in danger, as several people were leaving the city on their own initiative.

Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health said Sunday that Juan Carlos Santana Garrido, 60, a firefighter from Cienfuegos who was among the 17 firefighters who have been reported missing, had died fighting the blaze. No other bodies have been recovered so far.

According to the latest figures from the ministry, 125 people suffered injuries, and 24 remain hospitalized, two with severe injuries and five in critical condition.

Cuba struggles to put out the fire

As the fire remained out of control, questions have mounted about how the missing firefighters might have died and the level of disaster preparedness, or lack of, shown by Cuban authorities.

The government has not explained why the facility’s lightning-protection system failed and if the tanks were equipped with fire protection systems up to international standards.

Information provided by the government and media outlets suggested authorities did not have enough firefighting foam, chemicals and technical equipment on hand, prompting a call for international assistance.

“They were not prepared to handle a disaster of this magnitude,” said Jorge Piñón, the director of the Latin America and Caribbean Energy and Environmental Program at the University of Texas at Austin, who monitors Cuba’s oil industry. “Looking at the shipments from Mexico and Venezuela, they didn’t have the pumps for cooling the tanks nor the foam. So you can see that the Matanzas facility was not prepared for this catastrophic event.”

Mexico sent three helicopters and 85 military personnel and specialists from the Mexican state oil company Pemex. Venezuela sent 35 firefighters and 20 tons of foam and chemical agents to help extinguish the fire. Another three flights from Mexico were expected on Monday.

The machine needed to pump the foam and chemical agents was also flown from Venezuela and assembled in Cuba, a task finished in the early hours Monday, the head of the Communist Party in Matanzas, Sucely Morfa, said on Twitter.

But the Matanzas governor said the collapse of the second tank has delayed the use of the foam.

According to his statement, the oil storage facility lacked a pump “of large dimensions, which is what we need so the water can reach the top,” he said.

A report by the state news agency ACN also suggests that during the first hours, there were not enough firefighters and trained personnel to respond to the incident.

Esteban Grau, a Red Cross volunteer who works for an environmental foundation in Matanzas, told ACN that “from the first day of the incident, the members of the Red Cross assumed the mission of supporting the firefighters on the front line to help solve problems and support the assembly of the technical equipment.”

Grau said he and other Red Cross workers “were with the firefighters who were burned” and are still missing.

“We survive because we knew how to hide and get under the grass and get out crawling,” he added. “It was an odyssey.”

Despite being on the front line, the Red Cross workers did not have heat-protective clothing.

Grau and other Red Cross volunteers also witnessed the explosion of the second tank on Sunday night, and “the firefighters threw themselves on top of us with their blankets and with their clothes open so that the heat would pass over us and not burn us, because the Red Cross suits are made of cloth that does not provide enough protection for the heated gas,” he said.

“We faced the choice of trying to take off our clothes and jump into the water swimming when the oil spilled,” he said.

Energy situation worsens

Cuban authorities have also said little about how the fire could affect local oil production and electrical service, already disrupted by frequent blackouts.

The Matanzas Supertanker Base is a central oil distribution node in Cuba. Crude oil extracted in wells nearby is stored there and then transferred to Cuban tankers for delivery to power stations to generate electricity. Imported oil is usually unloaded there too, Piñón said.

“Matanzas terminal is very important for Cuba, so I am concerned about what will happen to the oil production and distribution to the power stations,” he said.

Cuba’s energy system is tattered, with several generating units already out of commission or under maintenance. Last month, authorities said electrical service cuts could not be avoided, because the system is operating with a third of its generating capacity with no backup.

On Monday, Cuba’s Electrical Union announced that it shut down the Antonio Guiteras power station, located very close to the blazing fire. Previously, authorities had said the power station only had oil for two days. Several neighborhoods in Matanzas and Havana had no electricity Monday afternoon.


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