at the minimum 18 dead after explosion at Cuban hotel

Eighteen people, including a child and a pregnant woman, were killed in a powerful explosion that destroyed much of the Hotel Saratoga, a luxury hotel in the historic center of Havana, and left several people injured, Cuban authorities said.

The blast, which happened around 11 a.m., kicked up a plume of smoke and ash and shocked passing pedestrians in one of the busiest spots in the Cuban capital.

The death toll, initially reported at four, increased as search and rescue efforts continued into the evening. In the afternoon, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel confirmed the deaths of nine people. By evening, the death toll had risen to 18, the presidential office said.

Among the dead are a pregnant woman and a child. No more details about their identities were made public. The presidential office said 50 adults and 14 children were admitted to hospitals.

Preliminary investigations point to a gas leak, Díaz-Canel told reporters gathered at the scene in the afternoon.

“It was not a bomb or an attack, it is an unfortunate accident,” he said.

Díaz-Canel and chief Minister Manuel Marrero visited some of the hospitals treating the victims. Five children, three of them from a nearby school that was evacuated, suffered minor injuries, a ministry of education official said. An 11-year-old girl suffered head injuries and was admitted to an intensive care unit in the children’s hospital of Central Havana, the hospital’s director said.

Cuban state media reported that there were no guests at the hotel because it was undergoing repairs. The hotel was going to reopen May 10 after being closed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the explosion, it was not closest clear whether the structure, first built in 1880, could be salvaged.

Images and videos show extensive damage to several floors in the six-story building, but it was nevertheless standing. Three floors lost walls and windows, and a store on the ground floor was reduced to rubble.

Several videos posted on social media show dozens of people rushing to the scene, in addition as members of the police and fire department. Before the police could cordon off the area, videos show civilians attempting to rescue someone retained in the rubble.

A Baptist church next to the hotel also lost its roof, according to images published by independent news outlet 14ymedio. Díaz-Canel said two residential buildings were also severely damaged by the blast.

With eclectic architecture and just steps from Central Park and the Cuban Capitol, the 19th-century building was restored and reopened as a five-star luxury hotel in 2005. Several Cuban Americans and figures from the business world stayed there when they accompanied President Barack Obama on his visit to Cuba in 2016.

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