Havana explosion: At least 22 dead after blast at luxury hotel as rescuers search rubble for survivors
Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel said a preliminary investigation pointed to a gas leak causing the explosion at the capital’s Saratoga Hotel on Friday.
"In no case was it a bomb or an attack," he later told Reuters as he left the capital's Calixto Garcia hospital, where many of the injured were treated. 'It's just a very unfortunate accident."
Dr Julio Guerra Izquierdo, chief of hospital services at the Ministry of Health, said at least 74 people had been injured, including 14 children.
But this number could rise as rescuers searched the rubble for survivors continued through Friday night, Cuba’s national health minister, Jose Angel Portal said.
The 19th-century hotel in the city's Old Havana neighbourhood did not have any guests at the time of the explosion because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a planned reopening on Tuesday. The 96-room building has previously hosted celebrities including Beyonce and Jay-Z.
Fire department lieutenant colonel Noel Silva said rescue workers were still looking for a large group of people who may be under the rubble.
One woman, Cristina Avellar, had her walls blown away by the blast, leaving the interiors of many rooms exposed.
“I don’t want to move from here,” she said she was waiting for news of Odalys Barrera, 57, cashier at the hotel who she said she considers a sister.
CNN Havana bureau chief Patrick Oppman tweeted that the area around the “iconic hotel” was “a horrible scene of destruction”.
At least three floors of the building are shown to have been blown out in images from the scene, as clouds of dust and smoke rise into the air.
The explosion ripped off the facade when the luxury hotel was partly decimated. The blast also damaged nearby buildings in the area, which not far from the Cuban capitol in Havana’s Old Town.
Meanwhile, a 300-student school next to the hotel was evacuated. The city’s governor Reinaldo Garcia Zapata said five of the students suffered minor injuries.
Buses and cars in the vicinity were also destroyed. Rescue workers arrived at the hotel as officials closed down the area, including nearby buildings.
“Our solidarity to the victims and those affected as well as the people of that dear fraternal nation,” Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard wrote on Twitter.
Videos and images posted on social media showed emergency vehicle flocking to the scene where rubble had fallen onto the streets surrounding the hotel.
Mr Diaz-Canel and Prime Minister Manuel Marrero was at the hotel not long after the explosion had occurred.
“Search and rescue work continues at the hotel, where people may still be trapped,” the office of the president said.
The Concepción Arenal School was one of the other buildings in the area that was damaged. A teacher said three students had ben injured, according to The New York Times. She added that the explosion had blown out the windows, sending shards of broken glass flying through the air.
Cuban state media reported that children had been taken to the Capitol after the explosion. Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma tweeted that the blast happened “while liquefied gas was presumably being moved from a truck”.
After being constructed in 1880 to partly be used as a warehouse, the Saratoga was rebuilt as a hotel in 1933. According to the hotel’s website, it was reopened in 2005 following subsequent renovations.
“Though we have not been able to verify the origin of its name, it is likely that it stems from the US resort town of Saratoga in the State of New York,” the hotel website states.
The explosion took place as Cuba’s vital tourism industry has started to recover after being severely damaged by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Being closed off from the outside world for months, the island was hit by one of its economic crises ever.
The country no longer had readily available access to foreign currencies, something it has been depending on tourism to bring in, amid the already tough financial conditions under the US embargo that has been in place for decades.
The economic struggles prompted one of the largest protest movements in the island nation’s history as thousands of people entered the streets. Dozens of people have been jailed amid a government crackdown.
The Friday morning explosion took place as the country was hosting an international tourism fair in Varadero, a resort town not far from Havana.