HAVANA (AP) — Rescuers and firefighters continued to remove debris early Saturday in search of victims in what was a luxurious hotel in Havana, which became a mass of iron and concrete debris, after an explosion caused Apparently due to a gas leak. The latest official count was 22 dead, one of whom was a child, and dozens injured.
The Minister of Tourism, Juan Carlos García, reported that all the victims were of Cuban nationality, since the hotel was going to reopen on May 10, after two years of paralysis due to COVID-19 and was undergoing renovations, so he had no customers.
Although the area surrounding the Hotel Saratoga remained cordoned off, heavy machinery and trucks carrying gravel and other debris could be seen at night, while mechanical shovels lifted pieces of wall and masonry to clear the area, The Associated Press reported.
After the smoke and dust dissipated in the night, the great affectation of the building could be seen. The first floors were devastated, the completely uprooted façade made it possible to distinguish mattresses, pieces of furniture, hanging glass, tattered curtains and cushions.
The explosion occurred shortly before 11 am on Friday and the shocking noise was heard all around. “It was not a bomb, it was not an attack… it was a very unfortunate accident,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who went to the scene, told reporters.
In turn, Dr. Julio Guerra, from the Ministry of Health, said at a press conference that there were at least 74 injured. The bodies are “in the process of being identified,” added the doctor, who also indicated that the names will be announced in the next few hours.
“We are still looking for an important group of people who may be under the rubble,” said Lieutenant Colonel Noel Silva, of the Fire Department.
In the vicinity of the hotel there were people who identified themselves as relatives of the disappeared and who were waiting for news.
“I don’t want to move from here,” Cristina Avellar told the AP, who was waiting for some information from Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier at Saratoga and the mother of two daughters, the eldest of whom has just given birth.
Avellar, godmother of Barrera’s daughters, had been in front of the hotel since she found out about the accident. The entire family agreed to search the different hospitals or stand guard in front of the destroyed mass.
A few meters further on were relatives of Juan Carlos Haza, who speculated on the possibility that people could be found in the cellars —although it is unknown if they are alive or dead— in the next few hours.
Beatriz Céspedes Cobas, 26, sister of Shaidis Cobas, 27, spoke through tears. “She had to work today. She is a waitress. I work two blocks away. I felt the rumble and didn’t even connect at first,” she told the AP.
For the work around the building, dogs were brought in to detect people and artificial lighting was placed to continue with the removal of debris at night.
An elementary school of 300 students next to the Saratoga had to be evacuated and five minors suffered minor injuries, reported the governor of Havana, Reinaldo García Zapata. He added that in addition to the Saratoga, there were two other adjoining residential buildings severely damaged. In one of them, 15 departments completely collapsed and in the other 10 they had magnitude damage. Its residents were taken to shelters.
The hotel is located in front of the Capitol, where the Assembly of People’s Power, the Cuban Parliament, currently has its headquarters.
Díaz-Canel and the Minister of Health, José Ángel Portal, toured the hospitals where the victims were treated. Relatives of the injured also gathered in front of the Calixto García Hospital looking for news.
Later, Cuban state television showed the removal of a gas truck covered in debris, while firefighters constantly sprayed it with water. Unofficially, there was talk that this truck could have been a factor in the explosion.
The director of the gas company, Lázara Soria, indicated that the truck supplied the hotel – without specifying for what type of service – and said that it had about 12,000 liters of the fluid.
Cuban photographer Michel Figueroa was passing in front of the Saratoga when the explosion occurred. “The explosion knocked me to the ground and my head still hurts. I stood up, but it was all very fast,” he said as he showed the AP the images he took.
The hotel is located in an area of old and deteriorated buildings, so hundreds of residents took to the streets in fear of new explosions.
The Saratoga, in the historic center of Havana, was a five-star hotel with 96 rooms, two bars, two restaurants, a spa, and a rooftop pool with a panoramic view of the city. International figures had stayed there, such as the American singer Beyoncé and her husband, Jay Z.
With its French neoclassical design, it was one of the most emblematic buildings in the Cuban capital.
Grupo Gaviota, which manages the hotel and belongs to the business area of the Armed Forces, reported in a statement on its website that the case is being investigated. A request for comment sent by the AP requesting comment was not immediately returned.
Andrea Rodríguez is at: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP