Firefighters have finally overcome what officials described as the worst fire in Cuba’s history that blazed over five days and destroyed 40 percent of the Caribbean island’s main fuel storage facility and caused enormous power outages.
Matanzas is Cuba’s largest port for receiving crude oil and fuel imports. Oil and diesel stored in 10 huge tanks at the port are mainly used to generate electricity on the island.
Rolando Vecino, the head of transport for the Cuban interior ministry, said on state-run television on Tuesday afternoon that firefighters had “managed to control the fire” .
Al Jazeera’s correspondent Ed Augustin said raging flames that had ravaged a four-tank segment of the Matanzas super tanker port had died down and the towering plumes of thick black smoke streaming from the port were now mostly grey.
“The blaze finally seems to be under control,” Augustin said, speaking from Matanzas port. “You can see a huge amount of smoke billowing out but crucially, the colour has changed.
“For the last three days, the colour has been a deep soot black,” he said. “Now it’s a light shade of grey, evidence that much of the fire has been smothered.”
Additional helicopters joined the effort to put out the fire on Tuesday, along with two fireboats sent by Mexico and heavy firefighting equipment.
Later in the day, firefighters for the first time were able to enter the area and spray foam and water on the still smouldering remains of the fuel tanks.
Officials have not said how much fuel has been lost in the fire. Authorities said that no oil had contaminated the nearby Matanzas Bay. Still, they warned residents as far away as the capital Havana – located approximately 60 miles (130 kilometres) from the port – to wear face masks and avoid possible acid rain due to the large plume of smoke the fire generated.
The fire broke out when lightning struck a fuel storage tank on Friday evening. The fire spread to a second tank by Sunday and engulfed the four-tank area on Monday despite efforts by local firefighters supported by more than 100 Mexican and Venezuelan reinforcements.
One firefighter was killed and 14 reported missing on Saturday when the second tank blew up, authorities said, correcting an earlier figure of 16 missing. Five others remain in critical condition. More than 100 people were reported injured, with 22 still in hospital.
The huge blaze was accompanied by huge explosions. Each storage tank had the capacity to hold some 50,000 cubic metres or 50 million litres of fuel.
The Matanzas fuel depot, built in the 1980s and modernised several times, supplies Cuba’s Antonio Guiteras thermoelectric plant, the largest power generation plant in the communist nation.
Cuba, which is still under heavy US sanctions, is all but bankrupt.
Frequent power blackouts and shortages of gasoline and other commodities had already created a tense situation on the island with scattered local protests that continued after last summer’s historic unrest in July.
“The problem with (electricity generation) has not been the lack of fuel, but the plants are very old and have maintenance problems,” said Jorge Pinon, a Cuban expert in energy policy at the University of Texas.
“Now they will also have a lack of fuel,” Pinon said.
“If they lose Matanzas, they lose the ability to supply the power plants,” he said.