Death toll in Havana hotel explosion reaches 18, including a child

Andrea Rodriguez, The Associated Press

Posted on Friday, May 6, 2022 at 1:59 p.m. EDT

Last Updated Friday, May 6, 2022 7:16 pm EDT

HAVANA (AP) – A powerful explosion apparently caused by a gas leak killed at least 18 people, including a pregnant woman and a child, and left dozens injured Friday when it blew off the exterior walls of a luxury hotel in Havana. the heart of the capital of Cuba.

No tourists were staying at the 96-room Hotel Saratoga in Havana because it was undergoing renovations, Havana Governor Reinaldo García Zapata told the Communist Party newspaper Granma.

“It is not a bomb or an attack. It is a tragic accident,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who visited the site, said in a tweet.

Díaz-Canel told reporters that 50 adults and 14 children were hospitalized after the explosion.

Cuban state television reported that the explosion was caused by a truck that had been supplying natural gas to the hotel, but did not provide details on how the gas was ignited.

The explosion sent smoke into the air around the hotel with people on the street looking on in amazement, one saying “Oh my God”, and cars honking their horns as they sped away from the scene, video showed. It happened as Cuba struggles to revive its key tourism sector that was devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Cuban Health Minister José Ángel Portal told The Associated Press that the number of injured 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.

“We are still looking for a large group of people who may be under the rubble,” said Lt. Col. Noel Silva of the Fire Department.

An elementary school next to the hotel was evacuated. It was not immediately clear if the injured children were students.

Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and rescuers worked inside the remains of the iconic hotel about 100 meters (110 yards) from Cuba’s Capitol building.

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 commercial tourism arm, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA. The company said it was investigating the cause of the explosion and did not immediately respond to an email requesting more details about the hotel and the renovation it was undergoing.

The Hotel Saratoga has been frequently used by VIP visitors and political figures, including high-ranking US government delegations. Beyonce and Jay-Z stayed there during a visit to Cuba in 2013.

Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was walking by the hotel when “the explosion knocked me to the ground and my head still hurts… Everything happened very quickly.”

Concerned relatives of people who had been working at the hotel showed up at a hospital in the afternoon to look for them. Among them was Beatriz Céspedes Cobas, who in tears was looking 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 house a block from the hotel: “The whole building moved. I thought it was an earthquake.”

In addition to the impact of the pandemic on Cuba’s tourism sector, the country was already struggling with the sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump, which the Biden administration has maintained. The 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 begun to revive somewhat earlier this year, but the war in Ukraine has halted a boom in Russian visitors, who accounted for nearly a third of tourists to Cuba last year.

The explosion occurred when the Cuban government was organizing the last day of a tourism convention in the iconic coastal city of Varadero with the aim of attracting investors.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is scheduled to arrive in Havana for a visit on Saturday night and Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has said the visit will still take place.

Mayiee Pérez said she ran to the hotel after receiving a call from her husband, Daniel Serra, who works at a money exchange house inside the hotel.

She said he told her, “I’m fine, I’m fine. They kicked us out.” But she was unable to communicate with him after that.

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