Explosion in Cuba hotel kills 25, rescuers search for victims

HAVANA – Rescuers in the Cuban capital on Saturday searched for survivors of an explosion that killed at least 25 people and destroyed a luxury hotel that once housed dignitaries and celebrities, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

A natural gas leak was the obvious cause of Friday’s explosion at the 96-room Hotel Saratoga in Havana. The 19th-century building in the Old Havana neighborhood had no guests at the time as it underwent renovations ahead of a scheduled reopening on Tuesday after it closed.

The death toll rose to 25 on Saturday, according to Havana city council coordinator Orestes Llánez, according to the official Cubadebate news site. He said 22 had been identified, 18 residents of the capital and four from elsewhere in Cuba.

He said searchers managed to reach the hotel’s basement in search of possible survivors.

At least one survivor was found early Saturday in the shattered ruins of the hotel, and rescuers using sniffer dogs clambered over huge chunks of concrete in search of more. Relatives of missing persons stayed at the site overnight. Others gathered at hospitals where the injured were treated.

“I don’t want to move here,” Cristina Avellar told The Associated Press near the hotel, whose exterior walls were blown away by the explosion, exposing the interiors of many rooms.

Avellar waited for news from Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier who has worked at the hotel for five years. She is the godmother of Barrera’s daughters and considers her a sister.

While no tourists were injured, the explosion is another blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country struggled with tightened sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and kept the Biden administration in place. Those limited visits by US tourists to the islands and limited remittances from Cubans in the US to their families in Cuba.

Tourism had started to bounce back a little early this year, but the war in Ukraine ended a wave of Russian visitors, which accounted for nearly a third of tourists entering Cuba last year.

The lower floors of the hotel appeared to have suffered the most damage from Friday’s explosion. The missing walls made it possible to distinguish mattresses, furniture, hanging glass, torn curtains and pillows covered in dust.

dr. Julio Guerra Izquierdo, head of hospital services at the Ministry of Health, said at least 74 people were injured. Among them were 14 children, according to a tweet from President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s office.

Cuban health minister José Ángel Portal told The Associated Press that the number of injured could rise as the search continues. Lieutenant Colonel Noel Silva of the fire service said rescuers were still looking for a large group of people who may be under the rubble.

The shattered hotel remained cordoned off as workers operated heavy machinery under the glow of emergency lighting to lift huge swaths of wall and masonry, and trucks left the site laden with debris.

Rescuers refused to answer questions because authorities had ordered them not to do so to avoid confusion.

A 300-student school next to the hotel was evacuated. Havana Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata said five of the students suffered minor injuries.

The landmark hotel had beautiful views of central Cuba, including the vaulted Capitol Building about 100 yards away. The Capitol suffered broken glass and damaged masonry from the explosion.

Renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revival of Old Havana, the hotel is owned by the tourist arm of the Cuban military, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA. The company said it was investigating the cause of the blast and did not respond to an email from the AP asking for more information about the hotel and the renovation it was undergoing.

In the past, Hotel Saratoga has been used by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking US government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.

García Zapata said buildings adjacent to the hotel were being evaluated, including two heavily damaged apartment buildings. Díaz-Canel said families in affected buildings had been moved to safer locations.

Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was walking past the hotel when “the explosion threw me to the ground and my head still hurts…. Everything went really fast.”

Concerned relatives of people who had worked at the hotel came to a hospital to look for loved ones. Among them was Beatriz Céspedes Cobas, who in tears searched for her sister.

“She had to work today. She’s a housekeeper,” she says. “I work two blocks away. I felt the noise and at first I didn’t even associate the explosion with the hotel.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was set to arrive in Havana late on Saturday for a visit, and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.

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