(Havana) At least 18 people were killed and 74 injured on Friday after a large explosion, believed to be caused by a gas leak, partially destroyed the Saratoga Hotel in central Havana.
“So far there are nine dead and 40 people injured,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel previously tweeted, offering his “deepest condolences” to the relatives of the victims.
Earlier, Miguel Garcia, director of the Calixto Garcia hospital where some of the injured are being treated, reported that 11 injured were “in extremely serious condition”. “A two-year-old child is undergoing surgery for a fractured skull,” said Miguel Hernan Estévez, director of Hermanos Almejeiras Hospital.
For his part, the first secretary of the Communist Party in Havana, Luis Antonio Torres Iribar, had specified at midday that “13 people [were] missing” and warned: “search and rescue work continues in the hotel, where other people may be trapped” under the rubble. No foreigners are believed to be among the victims, authorities said.
Emblematic establishment of Old Havana with its green facade, the hotel, under construction, had been closed to tourists for two years.
The only employees inside were preparing for its reopening, scheduled for May 10.
“According to the first findings, the explosion was caused by a gas leak”, is it specified on the Twitter account of the Cuban presidency.
According to the manager of the historic district of Havana, Alexis Costa Silva, quoted by the state media Cubadebate, a canister of liquid gas was being changed in the hotel.
The cook smelled gas and discovered a crack in the pipe and that was what caused the explosion.
“It was neither a bomb nor an attack, it was an unfortunate accident,” said President Diaz-Canel, who arrived there shortly after, wanting to put an end to rumors on social networks that evoked the attacks in bombings in several hotels in the 1990s, sponsored by Cuban exiles.
The first four floors of the 5-star-rated Saratoga Hotel with its 96 rooms, two restaurants and rooftop pool were blown up in the blast, which occurred around 11 a.m. local time (3 p.m. GMT) and the ground was littered with debris and pieces of glass, AFP journalists found.
A few minutes after the explosion, a thick cloud of smoke and dust spread over the avenue du Prado, where this establishment is located, a stone’s throw from the famous Capitol building.
There was “a huge” explosion and “a cloud of dust that reached the park (in front of the hotel, editor’s note), many people ran out”, testified to AFP Rogelio Garcia , the driver of a pedicab that was passing in front of the Saratoga at the time of the tragedy.
“There was a terrible explosion and everything fell apart,” said a woman, her face covered in dust, who didn’t want to give her name.
Several vehicles were destroyed near this hotel, known to have hosted several celebrities in recent years, including Mick Jagger, Beyoncé and Madonna.
Built in 1880 to house shops, the building was transformed into a hotel in 1933 and renovated to make it a luxury establishment in 2005.
The police, who arrived in large numbers, isolated the perimeter while the rescuers searched for possible additional victims in the rubble at the foot of Saratoga.
A dozen ambulances and five fire engines were present on the spot, the latter trying to cool the gas depot by spraying water on it, AFP noted. In the middle of the afternoon, a machine began to remove part of the rubble.
President Diaz-Canel, who also visited a hospital where the wounded were being treated, told the doctors: “Be the best, we must save ours”.