HAVANA (AP) – Alejandro Clemente Gonzalez spoke to an electrician in preparation for a weekend service at Cuba’s most important Baptist church, when a huge explosion shook a building and destroyed a 19th-century dome towering over benches.
Concrete collapsed from walls, wood and glass fell from windows when an apparent gas explosion in the neighborhood killed May 6 at the ruined Saratoga Hotel and around it in Old Havana.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” the church administrator said in a trembling voice as he revisited the shrine with Associated Press reporters on Wednesday. “I cried to the Lord: what is this, Lord? Help us! ”
He said the two men heard the registrar’s screams as debris fell around them, blocking their path.
“I remembered that there was an exit behind, and then the brothers who were on the third floor came down, we all met, counted each other,” – and managed to escape. All 18 people inside were not physically injured when they were shaken.
“I have slept badly ever since. I jump at every sound, ”Gonzalez said.
Part of the upper floors collapsed in a building that houses not only the Baptist church on Calvary, but also the seminary and denomination headquarters in western Cuba.
Sunlight shines through the cracks in the outer walls, the windows are broken, the frames are torn from the walls. The halls and rooms of the broken hotel are visible through the crack. A thick layer of gray dust covers the dark wooden benches where hundreds gather for worship.
The famous elegant building, now known as the Teatro Marti, was only a few years old when in 1887 the Baptists began holding services across the road on the corner of Old Havana, where a circus once took place. Cuba was still a Spanish colony, and its Capitol building – modeled after the U.S. Capitol – would not yet be built nearby in a few decades.
The Baptists acquired the property in 1889 and gradually established a church, printing house, school, seminary and headquarters, which now serves about 70,000 Baptists in western Cuba. In total, the church estimates that there are about 200,000 Baptists throughout the island.
“For every believer, every Christian, every Baptist who comes, this is their home,” said Father David Gonzalez, 31, who has lived in an apartment near the church for the past two years, which is now partially destroyed.
Government officials have so far focused extraordinary efforts on the search for the living and the dead in and around the ruined hotel, but they have met with church officials about the status of the church.
“They have given us the desire to help as much as possible,” said Rev. Barbara Abel Marera Castellanos, president of the Western Cuba Baptist Convention. “It is clear that there are not all the resources needed for the restoration, and they also asked us to collect the help that we know has been offered by the churches in the country itself as well as in the world.”
“We still do not know exactly the extent of the damage,” he said, adding that some experts said they may have to assess the possible wear and tear of the structure.
As the building is registered as part of the country’s historical heritage, renovations will be carried out under the auspices of the Havana Historical Office, which has overseen the restoration of much of old Havana in recent decades.
“We will be actively involved in this process and with all the brothers and friends who have offered help, we hope to make a beautiful project,” said Morera.
Meanwhile, church members are visiting other congregations, although the government has offered to help find a temporary place for people from Calvary.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP
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