Death toll rises to 25 after Cuban luxury hotel explosion

Rescuers in the Cuban capital searched Saturday for survivors of an explosion that killed at least 25 people and destroyed a luxury hotel that once housed dignitaries and celebrities.

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 after being closed.

The death toll rose to 25 on Saturday, said Havana city government coordinator Orestes Llanez, 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 elsewhere in Cuba.

Llanez said searchers managed to reach the basement of the hotel in search of possible survivors.

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

Firefighters and rescue workers remove debris from the ruins of the Saratoga Hotel 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 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 says she considers her a sister.

Tourism troubles

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

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

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

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 lower floors of the hotel appear to have suffered 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 Twitter post from President Miguel Diaz-Canel’s office.

Cuban 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 rescuers were still looking for a large group of people who may be under the rubble.

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

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 yards away. The Capitol suffered shards of glass and damaged masonry from the blast.

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 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 her husband, Jay-Z, stayed there in 2013.

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