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. 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 confirmed the tourist’s death and said his companion was injured. They did not stay in the hotel. Tourism Minister Dalila Gonzalez said an American tourist to Cuba was also injured.
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.
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.
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; she’s been there since 8 a.m. (Friday) and at this point I don’t know anything about her,” 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.
Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Pea briefed Commandante Ramiro Valdés, who had once fought alongside Fidel Castro, on Saturday morning about the search efforts at the site.
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 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.”
Although no tourist was reported injured, the blast is yet 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.
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.
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.
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