and Nelson Acosta
HAVANA, Aug 7 (Reuters) – Cuba appeared to make progress on Sunday bringing under control a fire at its main oil storage facility that has killed one firefighter, drawing on help from Mexico and Venezuela to fight the raging flames.
A lightning strike on Friday ignited one of eight storage tanks at the Matanzas super tanker port 60 miles east of Havana. A second tank caught fire on Saturday, catching firefighters and others at the scene by surprise. Sixteen people were missing.
Susely Morfa Gonzalez, head of the Communist Party in Matanzas, told local reporters “there are no flames at this time, only white smoke” coming from the first tank hit by lightning.
She said a second tank was still burning, sending up a huge column of black smoke, while a third, which on Saturday night officials feared would explode “is being cooled with water at intervals, in order to maintain an adequate temperature that prevents combustion.”
A secondary fire feeding off oil leaking from the area was also extinguished. No oil had contaminated the Matanzas Bay, officials said.
The second explosion on Saturday injured more than 100 people, many first responders, and 24 remain hospitalized, five of those in critical condition.
“We are facing a fire of such magnitude that it is very difficult to control in Cuba, where there are not all the means that are required,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel told reporters.
On Sunday, 82 Mexican and 35 Venezuelan personnel experienced in combating fuel blazes joined the effort, bringing four planeloads of fire-fighting chemicals.
“The help is important, I would say that it is vital and it is going to be decisive,” Diaz-Canel said. Cuba had been using water and helicopters to battle the flames.
Jorge Pinon, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Latin America and Caribbean Energy and Environment Program, said each tank at the facility could store 300,000 barrels and provided fuel to electric plants.
Cuba has been suffering daily blackouts and fuel shortages. The loss of fuel and storage capacity is likely to aggravate the situation, which has spurred small local protests in the last few months.