Cuba bids farewell to firefighters killed in fuel depot blaze

Relatives of the firefighters who died in a huge fire at an oil depot in early August walk ehind the funeral cortege in Matanzas, Cuba, on August 19, 2022. Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP

Matanzas, Cuba -- Thousands of Cubans turned out Friday to bid a final farewell to 14 firefighters killed while battling a blaze at a fuel depot this month.

A long line of firefighters, soldiers and ordinary citizens solemnly filed past 14 coffins draped in the Cuban flag at a ceremony in Matanzas, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of the capital Havana.

Also on hand were several of the island nation's top dignitaries, including leader Raul Castro, who headed an honor guard featuring President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Defense Minister General Alvaro Lopez Miera.

"A very sad day, it is very sad to say goodbye to those brothers who fought hard battles," Yunior Exposito, a 32-year-old rescue and salvage technician who escaped the fire, told AFP as he wept.

The blaze broke out on August 5 when lightning struck a tank containing 26 million liters of fuel at a depot on the outskirts of Matanzas, a city of some 140,000 people.

Early the next morning, a major explosion occurred when a second fuel tank caught fire -- killing the firefighters already on site.

Two other firefighters had also died in the blaze. Some 130 people were injured, of whom 18 remain in hospital.

It took six more days to bring the fire under control, during which time the 14 firefighters were officially listed as missing.

Four of the depot's eight fuel tanks were destroyed. Each had a capacity of some 50 million liters (13.2 million gallons).

After missing firefighters' remains were found, officials said Wednesday the bodies were too charred to allow for DNA identification.

The 14 were honored Friday on the second of two days of national mourning announced by Diaz-Canel, who offered his condolences via Twitter Thursday to loved ones of "these brave Cubans."

The Matanzas depot supplies the Antonio Guiteras thermoelectric plant, the largest in communist Cuba.

The disaster comes at a time when the island -- with an outdated energy network and persistent fuel shortages -- has faced mounting difficulties in meeting energy demands.

Since May, authorities have imposed energy blackouts of up to 12 hours a day in some regions -- sparking protests around the nation of 11 million people.

© Agence France-Presse

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