A powerful explosion apparently caused by a natural gas leak killed at least 22 people, including a child, and injured dozens on Friday when it blew off the exterior walls of a luxury hotel in the heart of the Cuban capital.
There were no tourists staying at the 96-room Saratoga hotel because it was undergoing renovation work, Havana Governor Reinaldo Garcia Zapata told the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
“It’s not a bomb or an attack. It’s a tragic accident,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who visited the site, said in a tweet on Twitter.
Dr Julio Guerra Izquierdo, head of hospital services at the Health Ministry, told reporters that at least 74 people have been infected. They included 14 children, according to a tweet from Diaz-Canel’s office. Diaz-Canel said families in buildings near the hotel affected by the blast have been moved to safer locations.
Cuban state television reported that the explosion was caused by a truck that was supplying the hotel with natural gas, but did not give details on how the gas ignited. A white tanker truck was seen being driven from the site as rescue workers submerged it in water.
Tourism Minister Juan Carlos Garcia said the hotel was due to reopen Tuesday.
A videotape showed that the explosion sent smoke into the air around the hotel, while people on the street stared in awe, one said “Oh my God”, and cars sounded their horns as they fled the scene. It happened as Cuba struggles to revive a key tourism sector that has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuba’s National Health Minister Jose Angel Portal told The Associated Press the number of infected people may rise as the search continues for people who may be trapped under the rubble of a 19th-century building in the city’s Old Havana neighborhood.
“We are still looking for a large group of people who may be under the rubble,” said Lt. Col. Noel Silva of the fire department.
A school of 300 students next to the hotel was evacuated. García Zapata said five of the students sustained minor injuries.
Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and rescue workers toiled inside the wreckage of the emblematic hotel, about 110 yards from the Capitol building in Cuba.
The hotel was first renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revival of Old Havana and is owned by the tourism trading arm of the Cuban military, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA. The company said it was investigating the cause of the explosion and did not immediately respond to an email requesting more details about the hotel and the renovation it is undergoing.
The Saratoga Hotel was frequently used by visiting dignitaries and political figures, including high-ranking US government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there during their 2013 visit to Cuba.
Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was walking near the hotel when “the blast threw me to the ground, my head still hurts…it was all so fast.”
Relatives of worried people who were working in the hotel came to the hospital in the afternoon to look for them. Among them was Beatrice Cespedes Copas, who was tearfully searching for her sister.
“She had to work today,” she said. “She’s a housekeeper.” “I work a couple of blocks away. I felt the noise, and at first, I didn’t even associate ‘the blast’ with the hotel.”
Yazira de la Caridad said the explosion shook her home a block from the hotel: “The whole building moved. I thought it was an earthquake.”
Besides the impact of the pandemic on Cuba’s tourism sector, the country was already grappling with the sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump that kept the Biden administration at bay. The sanctions have restricted visits by American tourists to the islands and restricted transfers from Cubans in the United States to their families in Cuba.
Tourism started to pick up somewhat early this year, but the war in Ukraine has hampered the boom of Russian visitors, who made up nearly a third of the tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.
The explosion occurred when the Cuban government hosted the last day of a tourism conference in the popular beach town of Varadero with the aim of attracting investors.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is scheduled to arrive in Havana late Saturday, and Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would continue.
Maye Perez said she rushed to the hotel after receiving a call from her husband, Daniel Serra, who works at a money exchange shop inside the hotel.
She said he told her, “I’m fine, I’m fine. Get us out.” But she couldn’t reach him after that.