Rescuers search for victims at Hotel de Cuba after blast kills 22 people

HAVANA – Rescuers in the Cuban capital searched through rubble overnight to find other victims of an explosion that killed at least 22 people and injured dozens at a luxury hotel that once hosted dignitaries and celebrities, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z

A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of Friday’s explosion at the 96-room Saratoga Hotel in Havana. The 19th-century structure in the city’s Old Havana neighborhood had no guests at the time because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a scheduled reopening on Tuesday.

Relatives of the missing people remained at the scene late Friday evening as rescuers searched the rubble. Others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.

“I don’t want to move from here,” Cristina Avellar told The Associated Press near the hotel, whose exterior walls were blown away by the blast, leaving the interiors of many rooms exposed.

Avellar was waiting to hear from Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier who has worked at the hotel for five years. She is godmother to Barrera’s daughters and considers her a sister.

Although no tourists were injured, the blast is the latest blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic drove tourists away from Cuba, the country was already grappling with sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and keeping the Biden administration in place. The sanctions have limited visits by American tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the United States to their families in Cuba.

Tourism had started to pick up a little early this year, but the war in Ukraine has served a boom in Russian visitors, who made up nearly a third of tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.

The upper floors of the hotel appear to have sustained most of the damage from Friday’s explosion. The missing walls made it possible to distinguish mattresses, furniture, hanging glasses, tattered curtains and dust-covered cushions.

Dr Julio Guerra Izquierdo, head of hospital services at the health ministry, said at least 74 people were injured. Among them were 14 children, according to a tweet from President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s office.

The search was to continue all night. The shattered hotel remained cordoned off as workers used heavy machinery to lift huge pieces of wall and masonry and trucks left the site laden with rubble. Firefighters and rescuers worked inside the wreckage.

Authorities have refused to release the names of the dead, even to their relatives. Authorities placed emergency lights at the site and brought in trained dogs to help with the search.

Rescuers refused to answer questions because authorities had ordered them not to to avoid confusion.

A school of 300 students next to the hotel was evacuated. Havana Governor Reinaldo García Zapata said five of the students suffered minor injuries.

The iconic hotel is about 100 meters from the Capitol Building of Cuba, which had shattered glass and damaged masonry after the explosion.

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 tourist arm, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA. The company said it was investigating the cause of the explosion and did not respond to an email from the AP asking for more details about the hotel and the ongoing renovation.

In the past, the Saratoga Hotel has been used by visiting VIPs and politicians, including high-ranking US government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.

García Zapata said structures adjacent to the hotel are being assessed, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Díaz-Canel said families in the affected buildings have been moved to safer locations.

Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was passing the hotel when “the explosion knocked me to the ground and I still have a headache… Everything was very quick”.

Concerned relatives of people who worked at the hotel showed up at the hospital to pick up loved ones. Among them was Beatriz Céspedes Cobas, who was looking for her sister in tears.

“She had to work today. 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.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is due to arrive in Havana for a visit on Saturday evening and Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.

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