A powerful explosion apparently caused by a natural gas leak killed at least nine people and injured 40 on Friday when it ripped through the exterior walls of a luxury hotel in the heart of the Cuban capital.
No tourists were staying at the 96-room Hotel Saratoga because it was being renovated, Havana Governor Reinaldo Garcia Zapata told the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
“It was not a bomb or an attack. It was a tragic accident,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who visited the site, said in a tweet.
The blast sent smoke into the air around the hotel with people on the street watching in horror and cars honking their horns as they sped away from the scene, video showed.
The explosion came as Cuba struggles to revive its key tourism sector, which has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuban Health Minister Jose Angel Portal told The Associated Press that hospitals had received around 40 injured people, but said the number could rise as the search continues for people who may be trapped in the rubble of the 19th century building in Old Havana. piece.
Granma reported that officials said 13 people were missing. A school next to the hotel was evacuated and media said no children were injured.
Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and rescue workers worked inside the wreckage of the hotel, about 100 meters from the Capitol of Cuba.
The hotel was first renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revival of Old Havana and is owned by the Cuban military’s tourist arm, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA.
It was frequently used by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking US government delegations. Mexican newspaper Excelsior reported that Beyonce and Jay Z stayed there.
Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was passing the hotel when “the explosion knocked me to the ground and I still have a headache – everything happened very quickly”.
Worried relatives of people who worked at the hotel arrived at a nearby hospital to pick them up. Among them was Beatriz Cespedes Cobas, who was looking for her sister in tears.
“She had to work today. She is a housekeeper,” she said. “I work two blocks away. I felt the noise, and at first I didn’t even associate the explosion with the hotel.
Yazira de la Caridad said the blast shook her house a block from the hotel: “The whole building shook. I thought it was an earthquake.
“I always have my heart in my hand,” she said.
In addition to the pandemic’s impact on Cuba’s tourism sector, the country was grappling with sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump that were upheld by the Joe Biden administration.
The sanctions have 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 has reduced the number of Russian visitors, who made up nearly a third of tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.
The blast came as the Cuban government held the final day of a tourism convention in the seaside town of Varadero aimed at attracting investors.
Mayiee Perez said she went to the hotel after receiving a call from her husband, Daniel Serra, who works at a currency exchange inside the hotel.
She said he told her “I’m fine, I’m fine, they took us out”, but she couldn’t reach him afterwards.