At least 26 dead in wake of Havana hotel explosion, as search for victims continues

Relatives of the missing in Cuba’s capital desperately searched on Saturday for victims of an explosion at one of Havana’s most luxurious hotels that killed at least 26 people. They checked the morgue, hospitals and, if unsuccessful, returned to the partially collapsed Hotel Saratoga, where rescuers used dogs to hunt for survivors.

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 neighbourhood did not have any guests at the time because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a planned Tuesday reopening after being closed.

Havana city officials raised the death toll to 26 on Saturday, according to the official Cubadebate news site. The dead included four children and a pregnant woman. Spanish President Pedro Sanchez said via Twitter that a Spanish tourist was among the dead and that another Spaniard was seriously injured. Cuban authorities had not provided details on the tourist’s death.

Cuban authorities confirmed the tourist’s death and said her partner was injured. They were not staying at the hotel. Tourism Minister Dalila Gonzalez said a Cuban-American tourist was also injured.

Representatives of Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, which owns the hotel, said during a news conference on Saturday that 51 workers had been inside the hotel at the time, as well as two people working on renovations. Of those, 11 were killed, 13 remained missing and six were hospitalized.

Gonzalez said the cause of the blast was still under investigation, but a large crane hoisted a charred gas tanker from the hotel’s rubble early Saturday.

Ongoing search effort

Search-and-rescue teams worked through the night and into Saturday, using ladders to descend through the rubble and twisted metal into the hotel’s basement as heavy machinery gingerly moved away piles of the building’s facade to allow access.

Above, chunks of drywall dangled from wires, and desks sat seemingly undisturbed inches from the void where the front of the building cleaved away.

At least one survivor was found early Saturday in the shattered ruins of the hotel, and rescuers using search dogs clambered over huge chunks of concrete looking for more. Relatives of missing people remained at the site overnight, while others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.

A rescuer carries a Cuban flag as he walks by the rubble after a huge blast wrecked the Hotel Saratoga in Havana on Friday. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

A desperate Yatmara Cobas stood outside the perimeter waiting for word of her daughter, 27-year-old housekeeper Shaidis Cobas.

“My daughter is in the Saratoga; she’s been there since 8 a.m. [Friday], and at this time I don’t know anything about her,” Cobas said. “She’s not at the morgue, she’s not in the hospital.”

The mother said she had gone everywhere seeking answers from authorities but came up empty.

“I’m tired of the lies,” she said.

A continuing shock

Lt.-Col. Enrique Peña briefed Comandante Ramiro Valdes, who fought alongside late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, on the search efforts at the site on Saturday morning.

Peña said the presence of people had been detected on the first floor and in the basement, and four teams of search dogs and handlers were working. He did not know if the victims were alive or dead.

Firefighters and rescue workers remove debris from the ruins of the Hotel Saratoga, in Havana on Friday. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

“I don’t want to move from here,” Cristina Avellar told The Associated Press near the hotel.

Avellar was waiting for news of Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier who has worked at the hotel for five years. She is the godmother of Barrera’s daughters and says she considers her like a sister.

Neighbours were still in shock a day after the explosion.

“I thought it was a bomb,” said Guillermo Madan, a 73-year-old retiree who lives just metres from the building but was not injured.

The three-decade resident of the neighbourhood was cooking and watching television when he heard the blast.

“My room moved from here to there. My neighbour’s window broke, the plates, everything.”

Katerine Marrero, 31, was shopping at the time. “I left the store, I felt the explosion,” she said. “Everyone started to run.”

Tourism troubles

The explosion is seemingly another blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country was struggling with tightened sanctions imposed by former U.S. president Donald Trump and kept in place by the Biden administration. Those sanctions limited visits by American tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the U.S. to their families in Cuba.

Tourism had started to revive somewhat early this year, but the war in Ukraine deflated a boom of Russian visitors, who accounted for almost a third of the tourists arriving in Cuba last year.

The lower floors of the Hotel Saratoga appear to have sustained most of the damage from Friday’s blast. (Ramon Espinosa/The Associated Press)

Dr. Julio Guerra Izquierdo, chief of hospital services at the Ministry of Health, said at least 74 people had been injured. Among them were 14 children, according to a post on Twitter from the office of President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

A 300-student school next to the hotel was evacuated. Havana Gov. Reinaldo Garcia Zapata said five of the students suffered minor injuries.

The emblematic hotel had a stunning view of Cuba’s centre, including the domed Capitol building about 100 metres away. The Capitol sustained broken glass and damaged masonry from the explosion.

The hotel, which was renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revival of Old Havana, is owned by the Cuban military’s tourism business arm, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA. The company said it was investigating the cause of the blast and did not respond to an email from the AP seeking more details about the hotel and the renovation it was undergoing.

In the past, the Hotel Saratoga has been used by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking U.S. government delegations. Beyoncé and her husband, Jay-Z, stayed there in 2013.

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