14ymedio, Havana, 11 August 2022 — Although it recognizes that risks still persist, the Cuban Government declared the fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Base extinguished on Wednesday, five days after it began as a result of a lightning strike, according to the official version.
In the four affected storage tanks, out of a total of eight 50,000 cubic meters each (50 million liters) and their surroundings, some active points remain, where emergency teams are located, EFE reports.
In statements by the second head of the Cuban Fire Department, Daniel Chávez, the work is focusing on cooling the area, where “minor” flames may persist for days.
The images shown by the official media that accessed the site of the accident, unprecedented in the history of Cuba, are devastating. Next to the completely melted tanks, fire trucks and other burned vehicles are observed. This is where 14 people went missing while fighting the flames.
The authorities still haven’t provided data on the missing persons, mostly young people who were going through military service and were sent to fight the fire without any experience. Only one person was mentioned: the firefighter, Juan Carlos Santana Garrido, 60, who has died.
In its last statement, the Ministry of Public Health raised the number of injured to 128, of which 20 are hospitalized: 5 critical, 2 serious and 13 “under care.”
Far from offering information, not only about the fatalities but also about the cost of the incident for the perpetually diminished Cuban economy, the official press focused this Thursday on extolling President Miguel Díaz-Canel for visiting the destroyed facilities.
Thus, they pick up the words of the hand-picked president: that “what happened in the last few hours didn’t paralyze the country, because many things have been done to continue improving the situation” and that “there was serenity, an ability to reach consensus on how to work.”
Roberto Morales Ojeda, a member of the Political Bureau and Secretary of Organization of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Part (PCC), goes so far as to describe as a “feat” the “integrated, coordinated work, deployed with extraordinary effort.”
The article from the State newspaper Granma, with the pompous title “The five days that shook Cuba, and the lessons gained forever,” devotes only half a sentence to the “25 flights from Mexico and Venezuela,” countries whose help to extinguish the fire was fundamental.
These nations contributed 127 specialists, 45,000 liters of retardant foam and 8 breathing air tanks with armor, in addition to other materials.
Regarding the missing, it simply refers to the statements of the Minister of Health, José Angel Portal Miranda: “The experts who will be in charge of the rescue and identification of the bodies have come prepared.”
About the environmental pollution, which concerns both the residents of Matanzas and those of other neighboring provinces, even Havana, the Cuban Prime Minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, said that the indicators “are below danger figures” and that “there are no patients with pollution-related symptoms at the hospitals.”
Another unanswered question is what could have caused the tragedy. The Matanzas Supertanker Base, the product of an agreement signed between Cuba and Venezuela, is a facility that is barely ten years old.
Some specialists, such as Alexandr Gofstein, rescuer and former head of the Russian Rescue Preparedness Center, explained that “the fact that the fire spread from one tank to the others shows that there were defects in the very structure of the base, which led to a disaster of such a proportion.”
However, hydraulic engineers Eric Cabrera Estupiñán and Alejandro Alomá Barceló, who worked on the design of the fire system of the facilities, which were inaugurated in 2012, said in an interview with Periodismo de Barrio that the Base had been built with “the necessary security measures of the highest international standard,” including a fire station.
Despite the fact that, as Cabrera said, “a lot was invested,” the troops who were sent to fight the fire initially included boys who were doing their military service at Fire Command number 3 of Varadero airport, 25 kilometers from the accident.
“Apparently what happened is that the lightning generated very strong energy,” the engineer speculated, and hit the top of the first tank. “At the top there is a cooling ring, which didn’t work,” he explained, although he did observe that “the cooling system of the neighboring tanks was working.”
Alomá, for his part, pointed out that the tank where the accident began “was practically destroyed from the first moment, at least the top, due to the many gases that had accumulated there.”
Both specialists stated that they have no way of knowing if the fire detection system, which automatically starts cooling measures in the facilities, worked correctly. “We have no idea if the pumps managed to move the amount of water required for cooling,” Alomá said.
Nor did they see that the necessary chemicals were used in this case — a kind of detergent with foam that eliminates oxygen in contact with the fire and, therefore, extinguishes it — but they didn’t venture any reason.
In a 2020 publication, some specialists warned of the danger of storing fuel for more than two months, referring to the conditions in which the reserves stored by Petróleos de Venezuela are located, in tanks similar to those of the Matanzas Base.
Chemical engineer Fernando Morales, for example, explained that “stopping the production of an oil well causes damage to it,” and Eudis Girot, executive director of the United Federation of Oil Workers of Venezuela, assured that the “structural composition” of the tanks is not designed to house oil for a long time.
Translated by Regina Anavy
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