By ANDREA RODRÍGUEZ, Associated Press
HAVANA (AP) – Relatives of those missing in the Cuban capital on Saturday desperately searched 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 Saratoga Hotel, where rescuers used dogs to hunt survivors.
A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of Friday’s blast at the 96-room hotel. The 19th-century structure in the Old Havana neighborhood had no guests at the time because it was in the process of being renovated before Tuesday’s reopening after being closed for two years during the pandemic.
Havana City officials raised the death toll to 26 on Saturday, Cubadebate reported. Among the dead were four children and a pregnant woman. Spanish President Pedro Sanchez has said on Twitter that a Spanish tourist was among the dead and that another Spaniard was seriously injured.
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.
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Representatives of Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, the hotel’s owner, said at 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 these, 11 died, 13 remained missing and six were hospitalized.
Gonzalez said the cause of the blast was still being investigated, but a large crane lifted a charred tanker truck from the hotel’s rubble early Saturday.
Search and rescue teams worked through the night and Saturday, using ladders to descend through the rubble and twisted metal to the hotel basement as heavy machinery carefully removed the batteries from the building’s facade to allow access. Upstairs, pieces of plasterboard hung from the wires, the desks sat a few inches from the void where the front of the building parted.
At least one survivor was found early Saturday in the shattered ruins, and rescuers using search dogs climbed through large chunks of concrete looking for more. Relatives of the missing people remained at the scene while others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.
A desperate Yatmara Cobas was left outside the perimeter waiting for the speech of her daughter, 27-year-old mistress Shaidis Cobas.
“My daughter is in Saratoga; she’s been there since 8 in the morning (Friday), and at the moment I don’t know anything about her, “said Cobas. “He’s not in the morgue, he’s not in the hospital.” The mother said she had gone everywhere looking for answers from the authorities, but that she had come out empty-handed.
“I’m tired of lies,” he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Peña briefed Commander Ramiro Valdés, who fought alongside Fidel Castro, on search efforts at the site on Saturday morning.
Peña said that the presence of people on the first floor and in the basement had been detected and that four teams of search dogs and manipulators were working there. I didn’t know if the victims were alive or dead.
“I don’t want to move from here,” Cristina Avellar told The Associated Press near the hotel.
Avellar was waiting for news from Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier who has been working at the hotel for five years. She is the godmother of Barrera’s daughters and considers her a sister.
Neighbors were still in a state of shock a day after the blast.
“I thought it was a bomb,” said Guillermo Madan, a 73-year-old retiree who lives just meters from the building but was not injured. The three-decade-old neighbor in the neighborhood was cooking and watching TV when he heard the explosion. “My room was moved from here to there. My neighbor’s window was broken, the dishes, everything.”
Katerine Marrero, 31, was shopping at the time. “I walked out of the store, I heard the explosion,” he said. “Everyone started running.”
Although there were no tourist injuries, the explosion is another blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic drove tourists away from Cuba, the country was struggling with tougher sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump and keeping the Biden administration in place. Those limited visits by American tourists to the islands and restrict Cuban remittances to the U.S. to their families in Cuba.
Tourism had begun to revive a bit earlier this year, but the war in Ukraine deflated a boom in Russian visitors, who accounted for nearly a third of tourists arriving in Cuba last year.
Dr. Julio Guerra Izquierdo, head of hospital services at the Ministry of Health, said at least 74 people had been injured. Among them were 14 children, according to a tweet from President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s office.
A school of 300 students next to the hotel was evacuated. Havana Governor Reinaldo Garcia Zapata said five of the students suffered minor injuries.
The iconic hotel had stunning views of central Cuba, including the domed Capitol Building about 100 meters away. The Capitol suffered broken glass and masonry damaged by the explosion.
The hotel was renovated in 2005 as part of the rebirth of Old Havana by the Cuban government and is owned by the Cuban Army’s tourism trading group, 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 asking for more details about the hotel and the renovation it was undergoing.
In the past, the Saratoga Hotel has been used by VIP visitors and political figures, including high-ranking U.S. government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.
Garcia Zapata said the structures adjacent to the hotel, including two badly damaged apartment buildings, were being evaluated. Diaz-Canel said families in the affected buildings had been relocated to safer locations.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was scheduled to arrive in Havana for a visit on Saturday afternoon, and Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.
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