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Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Nora Gámez Torres

Cuban experts say they can’t identify remains of victims of fire in Matanzas

Cuban experts said Wednesday they haven’t been able to identify the remains of 14 victims believed to be firefighters who died combating the fire that ravaged an oil storage facility at the port of Matanzas earlier this month.

In a news conference Wednesday evening, Dr. Jorge González Pérez, the head of Cuba’s Association of Forensic Medicine, said several search teams retrieved 754 human bone fragments in 14 different sets from the site, in an area close to the second oil storage tank that caught fire.

Because of the high temperatures, the remains were so damaged that they could not be identified, he said. However, he added that experts may be able to obtain partial identification data like age and sex.

“We have explained to the relatives that we have 14 groups of bone remains that correspond to the 14 disappeared persons, but that we cannot distinguish or differentiate one from another and give these remains a name,” he said.

Scientists usually use fingerprints, teeth and DNA to identify bodies. But when bones are severely burned, DNA might be too degraded to help with identification.

“Since the remains found were subjected to high temperatures for a long time, it is not possible to apply DNA extraction,” González Pérez said. He added the Cuban team consulted with Latin American and European experts.

The doctor, who also spearheaded efforts to retrieve the remains of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his guerrilla fighters in Bolivia in the 1960s, did not name the fire victims nor provide specifics on how and when they died.

The fire started the evening of Aug. 5 at one of the oil storage tanks in the Matanzas supertanker base, an oil distribution node in Cuba. Cuban officials have said the fire began after lightning struck one of the tanks and the lightning-protection system failed.

But it was also readily apparent that the government did not have the specialized chemicals and machines needed to extinguish the fire, which it later obtained from Venezuela and Mexico.

According to accounts by state media journalists, firefighters and Red Cross personnel who survived, the 14 missing firefighters likely died after one of the burning tanks cracked and collapsed between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. on Aug. 6.

Photos published by Bohemia magazine, taken minutes before the collapse of the tank, show a group of firefighters dangerously close to the flames. One of the surviving firefighters said he was about 60 feet away from the flames.

Cuban government investigators determined that 30 people were standing close to the second tank at the moment of “the incident,” according to González Pérez’s account. He mentioned that investigators reviewed video footage taken by state journalists and videos from the Ministry of Interior and the Revolutionary Armed Forces.

The expert said that of the 30 people, 15 are known to have survived and one died, identified as 24-year-old firefighter Elier Correa Aguilar. Cuban authorities confirmed the death of another firefighter, 60-year-old Juan Carlos Santana Garrido.

Among the missing firefighters are at least four military service recruits with little experience, which has prompted questions from family members about why they were sent to fight such a dangerous fire.

At the beginning of the news conference, González Pérez said he would not answer questions not directly related to the search efforts for victims.

On Wednesday night, Cuban leader Miguel Diaz-Canel decreed a day of official mourning for Thursday. The remains of the 14 victims will be buried on Friday in the “pantheon of the perished in the defense of the country” in the Matanzas cemetery.

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