Death toll rises to 25 following explosion at Cuban luxury hotel

Rescuers in Cuba’s capital searched Saturday to find survivors of an explosion that killed at the minimum 25 people and destroyed a luxury hotel that once hosted dignitaries and celebrities.

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.

The death toll rose to 25 on Saturday, said Orestes Llanez, co-ordinator of the Havana city government, according to the official Cubadebate news site. He said that of the 22 who had been identified, 18 were residents of the capital and four were from in other places in Cuba.

Llanez said searchers had managed to reach the hotel’s basement in the hunt for possible survivors.

at the minimum 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.

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, whose outer walls were blown away by the explosion, leaving the interiors of many rooms exposed.

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.

Tourism troubles

Although no tourists were reported injured, the explosion is another blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry.

already 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.

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

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

The hotel’s lower floors appeared to have consistent most of the damage from Friday’s blast. The missing walls made it possible to discriminate mattresses, pieces of furniture, hanging glass, tattered curtains and cushions covered in dust.

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

Cuba’s national health minister, Jose Angel Portal, said the number of injured could rise as the search continues. Lt.-Col. Noel Silva of the fire department said rescue workers were nevertheless looking for a large group of people who may be under the rubble.

The shattered hotel remained cordoned off as workers under the glow of emergency lights operated heavy machinery to lift huge pieces of wall and masonry, and trucks left the site loaded with debris.

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 dramatically view of Cuba’s centre, including the domed Capitol building about 100 metres away. The Capitol consistent 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 nearby 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.

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