Death toll in Havana hotel rises to 30 as dogs search for survivors

HAVANA (Associated Press) – Searching crews with dogs Sunday searched the ruins of a luxury hotel in the Cuban capital for survivors of a devastating explosion as officials raised the known death toll to 30.

The Saratoga, a 96-room five-star hotel in Old Havana, was preparing to reopen after a two-year closure when an apparent gas leak erupted, blowing out exterior walls in crowded streets at midday just a block from the Capitol In the country building on Friday.

Cuban officials on Sunday raised the known death toll to 30 from 27 even as crews continued to search for victims buried under piles of smashed concrete. Several nearby buildings were also damaged, including the historic Marti Theater and Calvary Baptist Church, the main headquarters of the sect in western Cuba.

The church said on its Facebook page that the building had suffered “significant structural damage, with many collapsed or cracked walls and columns (and) the roof partially collapsed,” although no church workers were injured.

The Health Ministry said 84 people were wounded in Friday’s blast. Among the dead were four minors, a pregnant woman and a Spanish tourist whose companion was seriously injured.

On Sunday, the ministry published the names of the dead. About 24 people remained in hospital.

On Saturday, a representative of Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, which owns the hotel, said 13 of its workers were still missing. Governor Reinaldo García Zapata said Saturday night that 19 families have reported missing loved ones and that rescue efforts will continue.

Authorities said the cause of the explosion is still under investigation, but they believe it was caused by a gas leak. A large crane lifted a charred gas tanker from under the rubble on Saturday.

Burial operations have begun, according to municipal authorities. But some are still waiting for news of missing friends and relatives.

“Hopefully something will be known about my cousin’s mother,” Angela Acosta told the Associated Press near the site of the blast. Her relative, Maria de la Concepcion Allard, lived in an apartment next door to the hotel with a black Labrador, who was rescued with another dog on Sunday.

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Crews cleaned the streets around the hotel and by late Saturday pedestrian traffic had largely resumed.

“There are childless mothers today,” said Mattha Verde, a manicurist who walked near the Saratoga River Sunday, as Cuba celebrated Mother’s Day. She said she tells women who lost their sons or daughters in the blast that they “have to keep going.”

The explosion added to the problems of a vital tourism industry stifled by the coronavirus pandemic as well as tightening sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and kept the Biden administration in place. Those limited visits of 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 dampened the boom for Russian visitors, who made up nearly a third of the tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.

The Saratoga Hotel, closed due to the pandemic, was one of Havana’s elite residences, often hosting dignitaries and celebrities.

Some interest in Cuba is beginning to shift to an official visit by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who arrived Saturday night at the end of a five-nation tour that began in Central America.

Lopez Obrador met Sunday with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who awarded him the José Martí Medal “for his great achievements of humanity”. It is the most important award given by the state to a foreigner.

Díaz-Canel’s office said in a tweet that Lopez Obrador said he would insist US President Joe Biden not to exclude Cuba from the Summit of the Americas it will host in Los Angeles in June.

Lopez Obrador said the goals of the trip included signing agreements on trade, health, education and cooperation with the island, while he endorsed his stance on foreign policy.

“We do not support hegemony,” he said. “No one should exclude anyone because we are independent states, we are sovereign states, and no one can put themselves above the rights of peoples and nations.”

Diaz-Canel visited Mexico during its Independence Day celebrations last year. López Obrador recently spoke out against the US government’s apparent intent to exclude Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua from the upcoming summit.