Relatives of missing people in the Cuban capital searched Saturday for victims of an explosion in one of Havana’s most luxurious hotels, which killed at least 26 people. He checked morgues, hospitals and, unsuccessfully, returned to the partially collapsed Hotel Saratoga, where rescuers used dogs to hunt for survivors.
A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of Friday’s explosion at Havana’s 96-room Hotel Saratoga.
The 19th-century structure in the city’s Old Havana neighborhood had no guests at the time as it was undergoing renovations ahead of plans to reopen Tuesday after being closed for two years during the pandemic.
Havana city officials on Saturday raised the death toll to 26. Four children and a pregnant woman were among the dead. Spanish President Pedro Sanchez said via Twitter that a Spanish tourist was among the dead and another Spaniard was seriously injured.
Cuban officials confirmed the tourist’s death and said his companion was injured. They did not stay in the hotel. Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Dalila Gonzalez said an American tourist to Cuba was also injured.
The official CubeDebt website also cited the Ministry of Health as confirming 80 injured, of whom 46 were hospitalised.
Representatives of hotel owner Grupo di Turismo Gaviota SA said during a news conference on Saturday that 51 employees were inside the hotel at the time, as well as two people working on renovations. Of these, 11 died, 13 are missing and six are hospitalised.
Gonzalez said the cause of the explosion was still being investigated, but early Saturday a large crane lifted a charred gas tanker from the wreckage of the hotel.
ongoing search efforts
Search and rescue teams worked nights and into Saturdays, using ladders to descend into the hotel basement through rubble and twisted metal as heavy machinery carried away piles of the building’s façade to allow entry.
Above, pieces of drywall hung from wires, and desks sat unobstructed inches from the empty space where the front of the building was tucked away.
At least one survivor was found in the hotel’s broken ruins early Saturday, and rescuers using sniffer dogs climbed over large pieces of concrete to look for more. The relatives of the missing remained at the spot while others gathered at the hospitals where the injured were being treated.
A desperate Yatamara Kobas waited outside the perimeter to promise her daughter, 27-year-old housekeeper Shadis Kobas.
“My daughter is in Saratoga, she has been there since 8 in the morning” [Friday]And I don’t know anything about him at the moment,” Kobas said. “He’s not in the morgue, he’s not in the hospital.”
The mother said that she had gone everywhere to seek answers from the authorities but came empty-handed.
“I’m tired of lies,” she said.
a constant blow
Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Pea briefed Comandante Ramiro Valdés, who fought with late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, on search efforts at the site on Saturday morning.
Pena said the presence of people on the first floor and basement has been detected and four teams of sniffer dogs and handlers are at work. He did not know whether the victims were alive or dead.
“I don’t want to move out of here,” Christina Avelar told The Associated Press near the hotel.
Avelar was waiting for news from cashier Odalis Barrera, 57, who has worked at the hotel for five years. She is the godmother of Barrera’s daughters and says she treats them like sisters.
The President’s Office shared a radio exchange between a fire chief at the scene and the command center.
The chief called in the rescue teams and said that “a part of Saratoga is completely gone.”
“We have a school here and we’re going to vacate the school,” said the chief. “There’s a lot of panic here.”
Havana government Reynaldo García Zapata later said five students had minor injuries.
Neighbors were still in shock a day after the explosion.
“I thought it was a bomb,” said retired Guillermo Madan, 73, who lives a few meters from the building but was not injured.
A three-decade resident who lived in the neighborhood was cooking and watching TV when he heard the explosion.
“My room moved from here to there. My neighbor’s window was broken, plates, everything.”
Caterine Marrero, 31, was shopping at that time. “I left the store, I felt the explosion,” she said. “Everyone started running.”
The explosion appears to be another blow to the country’s vital tourism industry.
Before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country struggled with tough restrictions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and put in place by the Biden administration. Those restrictions limited travel by American tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cuba in the US to their families in Cuba.
Tourism began to revive somewhat earlier this year, but the war in Ukraine cut short the surge of Russian visitors, who accounted for about a third of the tourists who visited Cuba last year.
The iconic hotel offers a stunning view of the center of Cuba, including the domed capitol building, about 100 meters away. The Capitol retained broken glass and damaged masonry from the explosion.
The hotel was renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revival of Old Havana, which is owned by Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, the tourism business arm of the Cuban military. The company said it was investigating the cause of the explosion and did not respond to an email from the Associated Press asking for more information about the hotel and its renovation.