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Monday, December 05, 2022

Rescuers search for survivors at Cuban hotel, at least 26 killed in explosion

Havana ( Associated Press) – Relatives of missing people in the Cuban capital searched for victims of an explosion in one of Havana’s most luxurious hotels on Saturday that killed at least 26 people. They checked morgues, hospitals and, failing that, they 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 blast at the 96-room hotel. The 19th-century structure in the Old Havana neighborhood had no guests at the time as it was undergoing renovations before reopening on a planned Tuesday after closing.

Havana city officials raised the death toll to 26 on Saturday, according to the official CubeDebt news site. Four children and a pregnant woman were among the dead. Spanish President Pedro Sánchez said via Twitter that a Spanish tourist was among the dead and another Spaniard was seriously injured. Cuban officials did not provide details about the tourist’s death.

After The Explosion At Hotel Saratoga In Havana

Emergency services members walk near Hotel Saratoga after an explosion in the building, in Havana, Cuba May 6, 2022. Photo by Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters.

Search and rescue teams worked nights and Saturdays, using ladders to descend into the hotel basement through rubble and twisted metal as heavy machinery scraped away the building’s façade to allow entry. Above, pieces of drywall hung from wires, desks sat unobstructed by the empty space where the front of the building was tucked away.

Rescuers refused to answer questions as officers had ordered them to avoid confusion.

At least one survivor was found in the 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; He’s been there since 8 a.m. (Friday) and at this point I don’t know anything about him,” Kobas said. “He’s not in the morgue, he’s not in the hospital.” The mother said she wanted answers from the authorities. Went everywhere, but was coming empty.

“I’m tired of lies,” she said.

Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Pea briefed Comandante Ramiro Valdés, who fought with Fidel Castro, on the search efforts at the site on Saturday morning.

Pena said the presence of people on the first floor and in the 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 treats them like sisters.

Neighbors were still in shock a day after the explosion.

“I thought it was a bomb,” said retired 73-year-old Guillermo Madan, 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 went from here to there. My neighbor’s window was broken, the plate, everything.”

Caterine Marrero, 31, was shopping at that time. “I left the store, I felt the explosion,” she said. “Everyone started running.”

Although no tourist was reported injured, the blast is yet another blow to the country’s vital tourism industry.

Read more: Powerful explosion at Havana hotel kills at least 22

Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country was battling tough restrictions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and the Biden administration kept up. Limited visits by American tourists to those 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.

Dr. Julio Guerra Izquierdo, head of hospital services at the health ministry, said at least 74 people were injured. 14 of them were children, according to a tweet from the office of President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

A 300-student school next to the hotel was evacuated. Havana government Reynaldo García Zapata said five students had minor injuries.

About 110 yards (100 m) away, including the domed capitol building, the iconic hotel had a stunning view of the center of Cuba. The Capitol suffered 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 and 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.

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

García Zapata said that structures adjacent to the hotel were being evaluated, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Diaz-Canel said families had been moved to safer places in the affected buildings.

Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador was due to arrive in Havana late Saturday and Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.

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