Cuba honors firefighters killed in blaze at oil storage base
Matanzas, Cuba, Aug 19 (EFE).- More than 15,000 people stood in line here Friday to pay their respects to 14 firefighters who perished while battling a massive blaze at an oil storage facility in this port city on Cuba’s northern coast.
The doors of the Firefighters Museum of Matanzas opened at 10:00 am and mourners continued to file past the flag-draped caskets until after 5:00 pm, with a brief interruption shortly after mid-day due to a thunderstorm.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and his predecessor, Raul Castro, led the honor guard that loaded the caskets onto vehicles for the procession to San Carlos cemetery for a private funeral service limited to family members.
The largest industrial accident in Cuban history began the night of Aug. 5 when lightning struck a tank holding around 25,000 cubic meters of fuel oil and the contents burst into flames.
By the following morning, the blaze had spread to a second tank, and a third tank collapsed two days later.
The 14 firefighters perished in an explosion on Aug. 6, but it was only after the flames were fully extinguished – on Aug. 12 – that it was safe to recover more than 700 bone fragments from the ashes.
The Cuban government did not release the names of the dead until Thursday.
Three of those who came to pay respects on Friday were elderly neighbors of fallen firefighter Diosdel Nazco, 39.
“He was our neighbor, but we were more like a family,” one of them told Efe with tears in her eyes.
Nazco, she said, “had a ton of experience” and was “on the point of retiring” from the department to pursue other activities when he was called into action at the Matanzas Supertanker Base, whose eight can hold nearly 420,000 cubic meters of oil.
The museum is not far from the base where the fire raged for days, sending up a plume of black smoke that reached Havana, 104 km (62 mi) away, and the emergency also led to evacuation of residents from some areas of Matanzas, a city of around 140,000 people.
The Cuban government has yet to offer an estimate of the economic cost of the disaster that claimed 16 lives in all, but Diaz-Canel said Friday on Twitter that officials “are working hard without rest” to restore the facility.
While Venezuela has pledged to help repair the structural damage, the loss of fuel to the fire has aggravated Cuba’s chronic shortage of electricity.
Most of the oil stored in Matanzas is used to generate electricity and Cubans have been suffering all summer with power outages.
Eighteen of the 146 people injured in the fire remain hospitalized, several of them listed in critical condition, according to the health ministry. EFE