Explosion at hotel in Cuba kills eight: real-time updates

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Officials say the blast, which destroyed a luxury hotel and nearby buildings in central Havana, was caused by a gas leak.CreditCredit…Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

MEXICO CITY – A powerful explosion rocked downtown Havana on Friday morning, officials said, killing at least nine people and injuring dozens, destroying parts of a luxury hotel and damaging nearby buildings a few meters from the Cuban capital.

At least 13 people were reported missing, officials said, and videos and photos shared on social media showed ambulances rushing to the scene and much of the Saratoga Hotel’s facade destroyed, with rubble piled on the road and smoke rising in. sky.

“There was a stench, like a chemical, that burned your nose,” said Miriam Díaz, 56, a Havana resident who lives behind the hotel and was on a bus arriving home at the time. explosion. “We couldn’t get out because the door wouldn’t open.”

The hotel was undergoing renovations and was not open to guests at the time of the blast, government officials said.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel arrived on the scene shortly after the explosion, along with Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz. The Cuban presidential office said on Twitter that preliminary investigations indicated the explosion, a around 11, due to a gas leak.

“Havana is in shock today after the accidental explosion of a gas tank at the Saratoga Hotel, which caused a large part of the structure to collapse,” Díaz-Canel wrote on Twitter. “Our deepest condolences and sincere accompaniment to the families and friends of the victims”.

The explosion in a major hotel brought to mind a series of attacks on the Havana hotel in the 1990s linked to militants in exile. But authorities were quick to dismiss any speculation that the explosion was deliberate.

“This was in no way a bomb or attack,” Mr. Díaz-Canel told reporters at the scene. It was “an unfortunate accident”.

The president’s office added that search and rescue efforts are still ongoing, with people potentially still trapped in the rubble. Officials suggested the blast occurred just outside the hotel.

“The whole building has moved. I thought it was an earthquake, “Yazira de la Caridad told The Associated Press, describing how the blast shook her home one block from the hotel.” My heart is still in my hand.

An iconic building dating back to the 19th century, the Saratoga Hotel reopened in 2005 as a five-star luxury property. The hotel had been closed for two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to its Facebook page, and is due to reopen next week.

Among the damaged buildings was the nearby Concepcion Arenal school. A school teacher who did not want to say her name said several students had been injured. She said the windows were blown away, with shards of glass flying a considerable distance.

The local director of education told Cuban media that five students were injured in the blast.

“It’s shocking,” said Ms. Díaz, whose daughter is attending school but was unharmed by the blast. “It’s really very difficult.”

State media reported that the children were evacuated to the Capitol in the wake of the blast.

The Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma said on Twitter that the explosion occurred “as the liquefied gas was allegedly being moved by a truck.”

The explosion comes just as Cuba’s all-important tourism sector was starting to recover after being hit hard during the coronavirus pandemic. The island nation had been closed to visitors for months, plunging Cuba into one of the worst economic crises in history.

“This has to give people a pause on whether Havana is really ready for reopening,” said Renata Keller, a Cuban expert at the University of Nevada, Reno. Cubans “really need this recovery in the industry. tourism and this explosion will not help “.

The disappearance of tourists has deprived Cuba of the vital foreign currency on which it is heavily dependent, exacerbating the financial challenges caused by the decades-long US embargo.

The economic crisis triggered one of the biggest protest movements in Cuban history, with thousands of people taking to the streets in cities across the country. A subsequent government crackdown led to the incarceration of dozens of people for crimes, including sedition.

The explosion came just days after Cuba hosted an international tourism fair in the nearby resort town of Varadero.

Shortly after the explosion, requests for blood donations to help the victims of the explosion spread on social media. Photos shared online show Cubans lining up to donate at a blood bank in Havana.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Friday afternoon that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s upcoming visit to the island would take place as planned.

“Our solidarity with the victims and those affected, as well as with the people of this dear fraternal country,” Ebrard said on Twitter.

Originally built in 1879, Hotel Saratoga opened in the 1930s and was considered one of the most important hotels in Havana. Now owned by the Gaviota tourism group, the hotel has been hosting international travelers for decades. Among his notable clientele were guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.

Hannah Berkley Cohen contributed reportage from Columbus, Ohio. Frances Robles contributed reportage from Miami, Florida.

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