At least 26 dead after explosion in Cuban luxury hotel

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Relatives of the missing in the Cuban capital searched desperately on Saturday for victims of an explosion at one of Havana’s most luxurious hotels that killed at least 26 people. They checked the morgue, hospitals and, if that failed, returned to the partially collapsed Saratoga Hotel, where rescuers used dogs to hunt survivors.

A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of Friday’s explosion at the 96-room Saratoga Hotel in Havana.

The 19th-century structure in the city’s Old Havana neighborhood had no guests at the time because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a scheduled reopening on Tuesday after being closed.

Havana city officials raised the death toll to 26 on Saturday, according to the official Cubadebate news site. The dead included four children and a pregnant woman. Spanish President Pedro Sanchez said via Twitter that a Spanish tourist was among the dead and another Spaniard was seriously injured. Cuban authorities did not provide details of the tourist’s death.

Ongoing research effort

Search and rescue teams worked through the night and into Saturday, using ladders to descend through rubble and twisted metal in the hotel’s basement as heavy machinery carefully moved piles away from the front of the building to allow access.

Above, pieces of drywall hung from wires, and desks apparently sat inches from the void where the building’s facade parted.

At least one survivor was found in the shattered ruins of the hotel early on Saturday, and rescuers using search dogs climbed over huge chunks of concrete in search of more. Relatives of the missing people remained behind overnight, while others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.

A lifeguard carries a Cuban flag as he walks near rubble after a huge explosion destroyed the Saratoga Hotel in Havana on Friday. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

Desperate, Yatmara Cobas stood outside the perimeter, awaiting news of her daughter, 27-year-old housekeeper Shaidis Cobas.

“My daughter is in Saratoga; she’s been there since 8 o’clock in the morning. [Friday]and right now I don’t know anything about her,” Cobas said. “She’s not in the morgue, she’s not in the hospital.”

The mother said she went everywhere seeking answers from the authorities, but was left empty.

“I’m sick of the lies,” she said.

A permanent shock

Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Peña briefed Commander Ramiro Valdes, who fought alongside late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, on search efforts at the site Saturday morning.

Peña said the presence of people had been detected on the first floor and in the basement, and that four teams of search dogs and handlers were working. He didn’t know if the victims were alive or dead.

Firefighters and rescue workers remove debris from the ruins of the Saratoga Hotel in Havana on Friday. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

“I don’t want to move from here,” Cristina Avellar told The Associated Press near the hotel, whose exterior walls were blown away by the blast, leaving the interiors of many rooms exposed.

Avellar was waiting to hear from Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier who has worked at the hotel for five years. She is godmother to Barrera’s daughters and says she considers her a sister.

Neighbors were still in shock a day after the explosion.

“I thought it was a bomb,” said Guillermo Madan, a 73-year-old retiree who lives a few meters from the building but was not injured.

The neighborhood resident for three decades was cooking and watching TV when he heard the explosion.

“My room moved from here to there. My neighbor’s window broke, the plates, everything.”

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

Tourism troubles

The blast is apparently another blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic drove tourists away from Cuba, the country was grappling with heightened sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and kept in place by the Biden administration. These sanctions limited visits by American tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the United States to their families in Cuba.

Tourism had started to pick up earlier this year, but the war in Ukraine deflated a boom in Russian visitors, who made up nearly a third of tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.

The lower floors of the Saratoga Hotel appear to have sustained most of the damage from Friday’s explosion. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

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

A school of 300 students next to the hotel was evacuated. Havana Governor Reinaldo Garcia Zapata said five of the students suffered minor injuries.

The iconic hotel had stunning views of central Cuba, including the domed Capitol building about 100 yards away. The Capitol suffered shards of glass and damaged masonry from the blast.

The hotel, which was renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revival of Old Havana, is owned by the Cuban military’s tourist arm, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA. The company said it was investigating the cause of the explosion and did not respond to an email from the AP asking for more details about the hotel and the ongoing renovation.

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

Garcia Zapata said structures adjacent to the hotel are being assessed, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Diaz-Canel said families in the affected buildings have been moved to safer locations.

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