HAVANA — A powerful explosion apparently caused by a natural gas leak Friday killed at least eight people and injured 40 when it blew away outer walls from a five-star hotel in the heart of Cuba’s capital.
Havana Gov. said that no tourists were allowed to stay at the Hotel Saratoga, which has 96 rooms. Reinaldo García Zapata told the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
“It has not been a bomb or an attack. It is a tragic accident,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who visited the site, said in a tweet.
The blast sent smoke billowing into the air around the hotel with people on the street staring in awe, one saying “Oh my God,” and cars honking their horns as they sped away from the scene, video showed. The explosion occurred as Cuba struggles to revitalize its tourism industry, which was decimated by the coronavirus epidemic.
Cuba’s national health minister, José Ángel Portal, told The Associated Press that hospitals had received about 40 injured people, but estimated that the number could rise as the search continues for people who may be trapped in the rubble of the 19th century structure in the Old Havana neighborhood of the city.
Granma stated that thirteen people had been reported missing by local officials. Local news media reported that the school located next to the hotel had been evacuated.
Following a fatal explosion in Old Havana on Friday, May 6, 2022, a body covered with sheets lies outside five-star Hotel Saratoga.
Ramon Espinosa — AP Photo
Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and rescue workers toiled inside the wreckage of the hotel, which is about 110 yards (100 meters) from Cuba’s Capitol building. It has been frequented by VIPs and politicians.
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 the hospital to check on their relatives. 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.
Yazira de la Caridad said the explosion shook her home a block from the hotel: “The whole building moved. I thought it was an earthquake.”
“I’ve still got my heart in my hand,” she said.
Besides the pandemic’s impact on Cuba’s tourism sector, the country was already struggling with the sanctions imposed by the former U.S. President Donald Trump that have been kept in place by the Biden administration. U.S. citizens were not allowed to visit the islands. They also restricted the flow of remittances made by Cubans in America to Cuban families.
Tourism was beginning to rebound a little earlier in this year. However, Russia’s war in Ukraine led to a surge of Russian tourists, accounting for nearly a third the number of Cuban visitors last year.
The explosion happened as Cuba’s government hosted the final day of a tourism convention in the iconic beach town of Varadero aimed at drawing investors.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is scheduled to arrive in Havana for a visit late Saturday and Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.
Mayiee Pérez said she rushed to the hotel after receiving a call from her husband, Daniel Serra, who works at a foreign exchange shop inside the hotel.
She said he told her: “I am fine, I am fine. They got us out.” But she was unable to reach him after that.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME