Explosion at Hotel Cuba kills 25, rescuers search for victims

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

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

The death toll rose to 25 on Saturday, according to Havana city government 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 basement of the hotel in search of possible survivors.

At least one survivor was found early Saturday in the shattered ruins of the hotel, and rescuers using search dogs climbed over huge chunks of concrete in search of more. The relatives of the missing persons remained at the scene overnight. Others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.

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

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

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

Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country was grappling with tougher sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and keeping the Biden administration in place. These 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 earlier this year, but the war in Ukraine deflated a boom in Russian visitors, who made up nearly a third of tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.

The lower floors of the hotel appear to have suffered most of the damage from Friday’s explosion. The missing walls made it possible to distinguish mattresses, furniture, hanging glasses, tattered curtains and dust-covered cushions.

Dr Julio Guerra Izquierdo, head of hospital services at the health ministry, 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 increase as the search continues. Fire Lt. Col. Noel Silva 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 under the glow of emergency lights used heavy machinery to lift huge pieces of wall and masonry and trucks left the site laden with debris.

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

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

The iconic hotel had stunning views of central Cuba, including the domed Capitol building about 100 yards away. The Capitol suffered broken glass and damaged masonry from the blast.

The hotel was 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. The company said it was investigating the cause of the explosion and did not respond to an email from the AP asking for more details about the hotel and the ongoing renovation.

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

García Zapata said structures adjacent to the hotel are being assessed, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Díaz-Canel said families in the affected buildings have been moved to safer locations.

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 quick.

Concerned relatives of people who worked at the hotel showed up at the hospital to pick up loved ones. 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.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was due to arrive in Havana for a visit on Saturday evening and Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.

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