2 novice firefighters among 17 dead in Cuban blaze
Havana, Oct 5 (EFE).- Two of the 17 dead in the serious industrial fire in the western Cuban province of Matanzas, which took place two months ago, were young soldiers who were in the front rank of firefighters working to extinguish the blaze, even though they had little firefighting experience and had been in the military for less than a year.
The training of part of the personnel who were dispatched to put out the fire at the fuel tank facility has been called into question by experts in Mexico and Spain consulted by EFE, especially regarding the ability of the emergency forces deployed to deal with the biggest industrial disaster in Cuban history.
In addition, the experts agreed on other elements of the Cuban effort they considered to be weak, ranging from the initial response to the fact that firefighters were sent in too close to the burning tanks, bypassing methods usually employed and the prevailing strategy for dealing with fires in general.
EFE arrived at this understanding from statements made by several people close to the dead who preferred to remain unidentified and who said that four of those who died in the fire were between 19 and 21 years of age and were fulfilling their obligatory military service.
One of them, Leo Alejandro Doval Perez de Prado, 19, had been stationed for just four months at the Varadero airport when the alarm sounded at 4 am on Aug. 6.
A lightning strike a few hours earlier had ignited a tank containing 50,000 cubic meters (13.2 million gallons) of fuel and the flames were out of control at the supertanker base, which is the largest petroleum storage facility in Cuba.
Doval was not a firefighter and never intended to be one. He was going to study medicine when he finished his military service in December and wanted to become a neurosurgeon.
He wasn’t the only one. Adriano Rodriguez Gutierrez, also 19, had been performing his military service for the past nine months.
The pair were in stationed at the airport and had no experience fighting industrial fires, a kind of blaze for which experts recommend firefighting teams who have received specific and continuous training.
Two other young men were in a similar situation: Michel Rodriguez Roman, 20 and Fabian Naranjo Nuñez, 21. Both were in firefighting units and had been serving in the military for less than two years.
On the day of the fire, these four young men and many others worked on the front line when several explosions erupted in a second fuel storage tank, with some of the resulting flames reaching dozens of meters (yards) into the air. A few hours later, authorities said that 14 people were missing.
On the morning of Aug. 6, the Cuban government requested international help to deal with the fire and the blaze was extinguished six days later thanks to support provided by Mexico and Venezuela via their state-run petroleum firms Petroleons Mexicanos (Pemex) and Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).
Apart from the young ages and relatively low level of firefighting experience among the four abovementioned men, Spanish and Mexican experts consulted by EFE also pointed to other key aspects of the emergency operation.
In a video on the evening of Aug. 5 posted on Facebook by a reporter with the local Giron daily, a group of firefighters said that they had been working 20 meters (yards) from one of the tanks that burned.
“Getting people close to it is madness,” said Spanish firefighter Joaquin Marfil, who has helped battle three fires at oil refineries.
As the firemen said in the video, at that time they were trying to lower the temperature in the burning tank and a neighboring one about 50 meters away.
“Twenty meters is carelessness, especially with a tank of those dimensions. Also, in the video one can see that the team that they had was, honestly, pretty bad. That’s an abuse,” said a Pemex firefighting expert.
Another firefighter from the same firm who also asked not to be named and is an expert on petroleum installation fires – and who sent materiel to Matanzas – could not contain her frustration, saying, that the strategy of trying to lower the temperature in the tanks from close by “doesn’t work. You can see that the red tank is on the point of collapse. My God, how infuriating. If there was no way to put it out with foam, they were just being exposed,” she said.
Analysts say that if the facility’s internal emergency system had been working correctly, there would have been less heat and the personnel could have approached the tanks more closely. The standard situation is for these fuel facilities, due to their inherent risk, to have automatic fire control systems.
But the firefighters themselves admitted in the video that they felt the heat was unbearable: “(It’s) tremendous,” they said on camera.