HAVANA — Lightning struck a crude oil storage facility on the northern coast of Cuba, igniting a fire that on Saturday had left dozens of people injured, 17 firefighters missing and prompted the evacuation of some 800 people, according to the authorities.
Images of the fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, in Matanzas Province, 60 miles east of Havana, the capital, were shared by the Cuban Energy Ministry on social media and show enormous flames rising from the facility, with plumes of smoke blackening the sky.
Military helicopters were seen trying to douse the inferno as dozens of firefighters rushed to the scene.
The fire began at one oil tank during a thunderstorm on Friday evening, according to state news media, and spread to a second tank early on Saturday morning. That tank was estimated to hold some 52,000 cubic meters of fuel oil, or over 13 million gallons.
As of Saturday afternoon, there were no reported deaths but 77 people had been hospitalized, according to Matanzas government officials. The 17 firefighters reportedly went missing Saturday morning just as the second tank exploded around 5 a.m.
The base, which stores oil for energy production, is near one of Cuba’s primary power plants. Already, the Caribbean island struggles with widespread power blackouts as a result of chronic fuel shortages and an ailing infrastructure in dire need of maintenance.
While the lights are mostly kept on in the capital, in the Cuban provinces where nine of the country’s 11 million people live, hourslong power cuts have become a grueling part of daily life in recent months. And diesel shortages have motorists waiting in line for days.
“It’s a structural problem with Cuba’s electric power system, which has been operating for over 40 years with no scheduled capital maintenance,” said Jorge Piñon, an energy expert at the University of Texas, Austin. “That puts at risk a total collapse of the system with no short term solution.”
The country’s largest protests in decades were prompted last year in part by power outages, as well as a lack of food and medicine in the country, whose economy has been hard hit by both the pandemic and American sanctions.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba visited the affected area on Saturday along with the country’s prime minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, touring hospitals and meeting with the wounded.
“The dawn will be long and filled with anguish, as it was last night,” Mr. Díaz-Canel said on Twitter. “There is no precedent for a fire of this magnitude at the Supertanker Base.”