Rescue workers scoured for survivors Friday afternoon after a large explosion rocked an upscale hotel in downtown Havana, killing at least nine people and injuring 40 others, Cuban officials said.
Preliminary information indicates the blast was likely caused by a gas leak, according to a stream of updates posted on President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s Twitter account. Cuban state TV reported that the blast was caused by a truck that had been supplying natural gas to the hotel, but did not provide details on how the natural gas ignited.
Residents and tourists scattered after the blast while police and rescue workers flocked to the area and started combing through rubble left behind at the Hotel Saratoga, a five-star hotel in the historic center of Havana. The 19th century hotel is across the street from Cuba’s Capitol building and frequently hosts high-profile guests and politicians.
Cuba’s national health minister, José Ángel Portal, told The Associated Press that hospitals had received about 40 injured people, but he estimated that the number could rise as the search continues for people who may be trapped.
Havana Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata said the hotel was undergoing renovations and no tourists were staying there, according to Granma, the Cuban communist party’s newspaper. The hotel was expected to reopen next week after closing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, according to a Facebook post.
That year, the hotel was also placed on a list of prohibited accommodations for US citizens, according to the State Department. Before that, it was frequented by American celebrities and tourists, including Beyoncé and Jay Z.
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 tourism business arm, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA.
“It has not been a bomb or an attack. It is a tragic accident,” Díaz-Canel said in a tweet. He arrived at the scene shortly after the explosion and visited a hospital where victims were being treated, video and photos shared on social media Show.
WORLD NEWS:Ukraine officials warn of offensive; Biden to meet virtually with G7 leaders, Zelenskyy
Worried 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 was tearfully searching for her sister.
“She had to work today. Ella 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.
The blast happened as Cuba is struggling to revive its key tourism sector that was devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and is being negatively impacted by the war in Ukraine.
Even before that, the country was reeling over sanctions imposed by the former US President Donald Trump that have been kept in place by the Biden administration. The sanctions limited visits by US tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the US to their families in Cuba.
Photos published by Cuban news ACN and Granma showed severe damage to the hotel’s walls and clouds of smoke billowing into the sky. Taxi cabs outside were pancaked by slabs of concrete that fell in the blast, photos show. Nearby, dust and other rubble also covered iconic vintage cars, which Cuba is known for.
A school next door to the hotel was also evacuated.
Yazira de la Caridad, a mother of two, 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.
Mayiee Pérez said she rushed to the scene 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 had been unable to reach him since.
The 96-room hotel has two bars, two restaurants and a rooftop pool, according to its website.
More:New book ‘Cuba: An American History’ upends misconceptions of Cuban history, US relationship
Contributing: The Associated Press
Contact Breaking News Reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg