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Desperate search for survivors in Cuba hotel blast with at least 27 dead

Relatives of people missing in Cuba’s capital are desperately searching for victims of an explosion at one of Havana’s most luxurious hotels that killed at least 27 people.

They checked the morgue, hospitals and the site of the blast at the Hotel Saratoga, where rescuers used dogs to hunt for 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 did not have any guests at the time because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a planned Tuesday reopening after being closed for two years during the pandemic.

On Saturday evening, Julio Guerra Izquierdo, chief of hospital services at the Ministry of Health, raised the death toll to 27 with 81 people injured.

The dead included four children and a pregnant woman.

Spain’s President Pedro Sánchez said via Twitter that a Spanish tourist was among the dead and that another Spaniard was seriously injured.

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The aftermath of a deadly explosion that hit Havana’s Hotel Saratoga.

Cuban authorities confirmed the tourist’s death and said her partner was injured.

They were not staying at the hotel. Tourism Minister Dalila González said a Cuban-American tourist was also injured.

Representatives of Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, which owns the hotel, told a news conference on Saturday that 51 workers had been inside the hotel at the time, as well as two people working on renovations.

Of those, 11 were killed, 13 remained missing and six were hospitalized.

Ms González said the cause of the blast was still under investigation, but a large crane hoisted a charred gas tanker from the hotel’s rubble early on Saturday.

Search and rescue teams worked through the night and into Saturday, using ladders to descend through the rubble and twisted metal into the hotel’s basement as heavy machinery gingerly moved away piles of the building’s façade to allow access.

Red Cross and rescue teams wait to enter the site of a deadly explosion that destroyed the five-star Hotel Saratoga
Red Cross and rescue teams waited for debris to be cleared to gain access to the site.(AP: Ramon Espinosa)

Above, chunks of drywall dangled from wires, with desks sitting seemingly undisturbed inches from the void where the front of the building was cleaved away.

At least one survivor was found early on Saturday in the shattered ruins, and rescuers using search dogs clambered over huge chunks of concrete looking for more.

Relatives of missing people remained at the site while others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.

A desperate Yatmara Cobas stood outside the perimeter waiting for word of her daughter, 27-year-old housekeeper Shaidis Cobas.

“My daughter is in the Saratoga; she’s been there since 8am [Friday]and at this time I don’t know anything about her,” Ms Cobas said.

“She’s not at the morgue, she’s not in the hospital.”

The mother said she had gone everywhere seeking answers from authorities, but coming up empty.

“I’m tired of the lies,” she said.

A portrait adorns a wall in the living room of a home destroyed by a deadly explosion
The explosion blew away the outer walls of the luxury hotel.(AP: Ramon Espinosa)

Governor Reinaldo García Zapata said 19 families had reported loved ones missing and that rescue efforts would continue.

Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Peña briefed Comandante Ramiro Valdés, who fought alongside Fidel Castro, on the search efforts at the site.

Lieutenant Colonel Peña said the presence of people had been detected on the first floor and in the basement and four teams of search dogs and handlers were working. He did not 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.

Ms Avellar was waiting for news of Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier who had worked at the hotel for five years.

She is the godmother of Ms Barrera’s daughters and considers her like a sister.

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 just meters from the building, but was not injured.

The three-decade resident of the neighborhood was cooking and watching television when he heard the blast.

“My room moved from here to there. My neighbor’s window broke, the plates, everything.”

A taxi is buried in rubble at the site of the five-star Hotel Saratoga after a deadly explosion.
The blast sent a wave of panic through the historic old Havana neighbourhood.(AP: Ramon Espinosa)

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

“Everyone started to run.”

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

Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country was struggling with tightened sanctions imposed by former US president Donald Trump and kept in place under current President Joe Biden.

Those limited visits by US tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the US to their families in Cuba.

Tourism had started to revive somewhat early this year, but the war in Ukraine deflated a boom of Russian visitors, who accounted for almost a third of the tourists arriving in Cuba last year.

A photographer documents the five-star Hotel Saratoga after it was destroyed by a deadly explosion.
The hotel has been used frequently by visiting VIPs and political figures.(AP: Ramon Espinosa)

A 300-student school next to the hotel was evacuated.

The emblematic hotel had a stunning view of Cuba’s center, including the domed Capitol building about 100 meters away. The Capitol suffered broken glass and damaged masonry from the explosion.

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 tourism business arm, 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 seeking more details about the hotel and the renovation it was undergoing.

In the past, the Hotel Saratoga has been used by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking US government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.

Mr García Zapata said structures adjacent to the hotel were being evaluated, including two badly damaged apartment buildings.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said families in affected buildings had been transferred to safer locations.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador arrived in Havana for a visit late on Saturday.

He was scheduled to meet with Diaz Canel on Sunday morning and return to Mexico on Sunday night.

ABC/wires

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