HAVANA (AP) – Relatives of the missing in the Cuban capital on Saturday desperately searched for victims of an explosion at one of Havana’s most luxurious hotels, which killed at least 26 people. They inspected the morgue, hospitals, and in case of failure returned to the partially destroyed Saratoga Hotel, where rescuers used dogs to hunt the survivors.
The obvious cause of Friday’s explosion at the 96-room hotel was a natural gas leak. There were no visitors to the 19th-century building in the Old Havana area at the time, as it was undergoing renovations before its opening on Tuesday after closing.
Havana authorities on Saturday increased the death toll to 26, according to the official news site Cubadebate. Among the dead were four children and a pregnant woman. Spanish President Pedro Sanchez said on Twitter that among the dead was a Spanish tourist, and another Spaniard was seriously injured. Cuban authorities did not provide details of the tourist’s death.
Search and rescue teams worked all night and Saturday, using stairs to descend through the rubble and twisted metal into the hotel’s basement as heavy machinery carefully pushed back piles of the building’s facade to provide access. Upstairs pieces of drywall hung from wires, tables stood seemingly intact inches from the void where the front of the building split.
Rescuers declined to answer questions because authorities ordered them to avoid confusion.
At least one survivor was found Saturday in the ruined ruins, and rescuers with the help of search dogs scrambled over huge chunks of concrete, looking for more. Relatives of the missing remained on the scene, while others gathered at hospitals to help the victims.
Desperate Yatmara Kobas stood behind the perimeter and waited for news from her daughter, 27-year-old housekeeper Shaidis Kobas.
“My daughter is in Saratoga; she has been there since 8 am (Friday), and at that time I don’t know anything about her, ”Kobas said. “She’s not in the morgue, she’s not in the hospital.” The mother said she went everywhere looking for answers from the authorities, but came empty-handed.
“I’m tired of lying,” she said.
Lt. Col. Enrique Peña informed Commander Ramire Valdes, who fought alongside Fidel Castro, of search operations on the spot on Saturday morning.
Peña said the presence of people was detected on the ground floor and in the basement, and four teams of search dogs and handlers are working. He did not know whether the victims were alive or dead.
“I don’t want to move from here,” Christina Avelar told the Associated Press near the hotel.
Avelar was waiting for news from 57-year-old cashier Odalis Barrera, who has been working at the hotel for five years. She is the godmother of Barrer’s daughters and considers her a sister.
Neighbors were shocked a day after the explosion.
“I thought it was a bomb,” said Guillermo Madan, a 73-year-old pensioner who lives just a few meters from the building but was not injured. A 30-year-old resident of the neighborhood was cooking and watching TV when he heard the explosion. “My room moved from here to there. The neighbor’s glass, plates, everything are broken. “
At the time, 31-year-old Catherine Morera was shopping. “I came out of the store and felt the explosion,” she said. “Everyone started running.”
The explosion was another blow to the country’s most important tourism industry.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic prevented tourists from Cuba, the country struggled with tougher sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and maintained by the Biden administration. These are limited visits by American tourists to the islands and restrictions on Cuban money transfers to the U.S. to their families in Cuba.
Tourism began to revive a little early this year, but the war in Ukraine offset a boom in Russian tourists, which accounted for nearly a third of tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.
Dr Julio Gera Isquerda, head of the Ministry of Health’s hospital service, said at least 74 people had been injured. Among them were 14 children, according to Twitter from the office of President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
A school for 300 students, located next to the hotel, was evacuated. Havana Governor Reynaldo Garcia Zapata said five students suffered minor injuries.
The iconic hotel offered stunning views of central Cuba, including the Capitol Building with a dome about 110 yards (100 meters) away. The blast in the Capitol shattered glass and damaged masonry.
The hotel was renovated in 2005 as part of the revival of old Havana by the Cuban government and is owned by a division of the Cuban military tourism business Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA. The company said it was investigating the cause of the blast, and did not respond to an email from the AP requesting more information about the hotel and the renovations it was undergoing.
Previously, the Saratoga Hotel was used to visit VIPs and politicians, including high-ranking U.S. government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.
Garcia Zapata said the structures adjacent to the hotel are being assessed, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Diaz-Canel said families in the affected buildings have been relocated to safer locations.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was scheduled to arrive on a visit to Havana on Saturday night, and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.