Desperate search for survivors in Cuba hotel explosion; 26 dead

Relatives of the missing in the Cuban capital searched desperately on Saturday 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 that failed, 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 explosion at the 96-room hotel. The 19th-century structure in the Old Havana neighborhood had no guests at the time because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a scheduled reopening on Tuesday after being closed.

But the area in front of the hotel was said to have been occupied at the time of the late morning explosion which ripped through the streets with concrete debris.

Cuban officials raised the death toll to 26 on Saturday. The dead included four children and a pregnant woman. Spanish President Pedro Sánchez said via Twitter that a Spanish tourist was among the dead and another Spaniard was seriously injured.

Cuban authorities have confirmed the tourist’s death and said her partner was injured. They were not staying at the hotel. Dalila González, spokesperson for the Ministry of Tourism, said a Cuban-American tourist was also injured. The official Cubadebate website also cited the Ministry of Health as confirming 80 injuries, 46 of whom remained hospitalized.

Representatives of Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, which owns the hotel, told a press conference on Saturday that 51 workers were inside the hotel at the time, along with two people working on renovations. Among them, 11 were killed, 13 are still missing and six were hospitalized.

González said the cause of the explosion was still under investigation, but a large crane hoisted a charred tanker truck from the rubble of the hotel early Saturday.

Search and rescue teams used ladders to descend through rubble and twisted metal into the hotel’s basement as heavy machinery carefully moved piles away from the building’s facade to allow access . Above, pieces of drywall hung from wires, desks apparently sitting inches from the void where the building facade parted.

At least one survivor was found in the shattered ruins early Saturday, and rescuers using search dogs climbed over huge chunks of concrete in search of more. Relatives of the missing people remained behind while others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.

Desperate, Yatmara Cobas stood outside the perimeter, awaiting news of her daughter, 27-year-old housekeeper Shaidis Cobas.

“My daughter is in Saratoga; she’s been there since 8 a.m. (Friday), and right now I don’t know anything about her,” Cobas said. “She’s not in the morgue, she’s not in the hospital.” The mother said she had gone everywhere seeking answers from the authorities, but was empty.

“I’ve had enough of the lies,” she said.

Lt. Col. Enrique Peña briefed Commander Ramiro Valdés, who fought alongside Fidel Castro, on search efforts at the site Saturday morning.

Peña said that the presence of people had been detected on the first floor and in the basement and that four teams of search dogs and handlers were working. He 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 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.

The president’s office shared a radio exchange between a fire chief at the scene and the command center.

The chief called for the rescue teams, saying “The side part of the Saratoga is completely gone.”

“We have a school here and we are going to evacuate the school,” the chief said. “There is a lot of panic here.”

Havana Governor Reinaldo García Zapata later said five of the students were lightly injured.

Neighbors were still in shock a day after the explosion.

“I thought it was a bomb,” said Guillermo Madan, a 73-year-old retiree who lives a few meters from the building, but was not injured. The neighborhood resident for three decades was cooking and watching TV when he heard the explosion. “My room moved from here to there. My neighbor’s window broke, the plates, everything.

Katerine Marrero, 31, was shopping at the time. “I left the store, I felt the explosion,” she said. “Everyone started running.”

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

Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country was grappling with tougher sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and keeping the Biden administration in place. These 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 earlier this year, but the war in Ukraine deflated a boom in Russian visitors, who made up nearly a third of tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.

The iconic hotel had stunning views of central Cuba, including the domed Capitol building about 100 yards away. The Capitol suffered broken glass and damaged masonry from the blast.

The hotel was 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. President Miguel Díaz-Canel said families in the affected buildings had been moved to safer locations.

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

Brandon D. James