Blast at Cuba Hotel Kills 25, Rescuers Search for Victims

HAVANA — Rescuers in Cuba’s capital searched Saturday to find survivors of an explosion that killed at least 25 people and devastated a luxury hotel that once hosted dignitaries and celebrities, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of Friday’s blast at Havana’s 96-room Hotel Saratoga. The 19th-century structure in the city’s Old Havana neighborhood did not have any guests at the time because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a planned Tuesday reopening after being closed.

The death toll rose to 25 Saturday, according to Orestes Llánez, coordinator of the Havana city government, according to the official Cubadebate news site. He stated that 22 were confirmed, including 18 Cuban residents and four foreigners.

He said searchers has managed to reach the hotel’s basement in the hunt for possible survivors.

A survivor of at least one was located in the rubble of the hotel’s ruins on Saturday. Rescuers with search dogs crawled over massive chunks of concrete to find more. The site was occupied by relatives who were looking for missing persons over the night. Many others gathered around hospitals that were treating the injured.

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

Avellar was still waiting to hear from Odalys Barera, a cashier aged 57 who had been working at the hotel for five year. She is the godmother of Barrera’s daughters and considers her like a sister.

Although no tourists were reported injured, the explosion is another blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry.

Although the Cuban coronavirus epidemic had kept foreign tourists away, it was still struggling under the tightening sanctions that were imposed by Donald Trump. This administration kept the Biden government in place. These limited U.S. tourist visits to Cuba resulted from restricted U.S. remittances for Cubans back to Cuba.

The tourism industry had been booming since the beginning of this year. However, the Russian war in Ukraine has ruined a boom in Russian tourists to Cuba, which accounted for nearly a third the number of visitors who visited Cuba last year.

The hotel’s lower floors appeared to have suffered most of the damage from Friday’s blast. You could distinguish between mattresses and furniture by the absence of walls.

According to Dr. Julio Guerra Izquierdo (chief of hospital services at Ministry of Health), at least 74 victims had been hurt. Among them were 14 children, according to a tweet from the office of President Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Cuba’s national health minister, José Ángel Portal, told The Associated Press the number of injured could rise as the search continues. Fire Department Lt. Colonel Noel Silva indicated that rescuers are still trying to find large groups of victims who could be hiding under the rubble.

Workers under emergency lighting operated heavy machinery to remove large pieces of wall and mortar. The hotel was still cordoned off.

Because authorities ordered rescuers not to answer any questions, they declined to do so to avoid confusion.

An additional 300 student school was located next to the hotel and had to be evacuated. Havana Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata said five of the students suffered minor injuries.

The emblematic hotel had a stunning view of Cuba’s center, including the domed Capitol building about 110 yards (100 meters) away. From the explosion, broken glass and damage to masonry were sustained by Capitol.

The hotel was renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revival of Old Havana and is owned by the Cuban military’s tourism business arm, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA. According to the company, it is investigating the incident and has not responded to an email sent by the AP requesting more information about the hotel or the ongoing renovation.

The Hotel Saratoga was once used by high-ranking U.S. delegations as well as VIPs. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.

García Zapata said structures adjacent to the hotel were being evaluated, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Díaz-Canel said families in affected buildings had been transferred to safer locations.

Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was walking past the hotel when “the explosion threw me to the ground, and my head still hurts…. Everything was very fast.”

Family members of those who worked at the hotel arrived at a hospital in distress to search for their loved ones. Among them was Beatriz Céspedes Cobas, who was tearfully searching for her sister.

“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.

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

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