HAVANA (AP) — A powerful explosion apparently caused by a natural gas leak on Friday killed at least eight people and injured 40 when it ripped through the exterior walls of a luxury hotel in the heart of Cuba’s capital.
No tourists were staying at the 96-room Hotel Saratoga as it was undergoing renovations, Havana Governor Reinaldo García Zapata told Communist Party newspaper Granma.
“It was not a bomb or an attack. It was a tragic accident,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who visited the site, said in a tweet.
The blast sent smoke into the air around the hotel with people on the street looking on in awe, one saying “Oh my God”, and cars honking their horns as they sped away from the scene, showed a video. It came as Cuba struggles to revive its key tourism sector which has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuban Health Minister José Ángel Portal told The Associated Press that hospitals had received around 40 injured people, but estimated the number could rise as the search continues for people who may be trapped in the rubble of the 19th century structure in the city’s Old Havana quarter.
Granma reported that local authorities said 13 people were missing. A primary school next to the hotel was evacuated and local media said no children were injured.
Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and rescue workers worked inside the wreckage of the iconic hotel about 100 meters from Cuba’s Capitol.
The hotel was first renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revival of Old Havana and is owned by the Cuban military’s tourist arm, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA.
It was frequently used by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking US government delegations. Mexican newspaper Excelsior reported that Beyoncé and Jay Z stayed there.
Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was passing the hotel when “the explosion knocked me to the ground and I still have a headache. … Everything was very fast.
Worried relatives of people who worked at the hotel showed up at the hospital in the afternoon to pick them up. Among them was Beatriz Céspedes Cobas, who was looking for her sister in tears.
“She had to work today. She is a housekeeper,” she said. “I work two blocks away. I felt the noise, and at first I didn’t even associate the explosion with the hotel.
Yazira de la Caridad said the blast shook her house a block from the hotel: “The whole building shook. I thought it was an earthquake.
“I always have my heart in my hands,” she said.
In addition to the pandemic’s impact on Cuba’s tourism sector, the country was already grappling with sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump that were upheld by the Biden administration. The sanctions have limited visits by American tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the United States to their families in Cuba.
Tourism had started to pick up a little early this year, but the war in Ukraine has served a boom in Russian visitors, who made up nearly a third of tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.
The blast came as the Cuban government held the final day of a tourism convention in the iconic beach town of Varadero aimed at attracting investors.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is due to arrive in Havana for a visit on Saturday evening and Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.
Mayiee Pérez said she rushed to the hotel after receiving a call from her husband, Daniel Serra, who works at a currency exchange inside the hotel.
She said he told her, “I’m fine, I’m fine. They took us out. But she couldn’t reach him after that.