A powerful explosion apparently caused by a natural gas leak Friday killed at least nine people and injured 40 when it blew away outer walls from a five-star hotel in the heart of Cuba’s capital.
No tourists were staying at the 96-room Hotel Saratoga because it was undergoing renovations, Havana Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata told the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
“It has not been a bomb or an attack. It is a tragic accident,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who visited the site, said in a tweet. The blast happened as Cuba is struggling to revive its key tourism sector that was devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and is being negatively impacted by the war in Ukraine.
Cuba’s national health minister, José Ángel Portal, told The Associated Press that hospitals had received about 40 injured people, but estimated that the number could rise as the search continues for people who may be trapped between the debris of the 19th century structure in the Old Havana neighborhood of the city.
Granma reported that local officials said 13 people were missing. An elementary school next to the hotel was evacuated and local news media said no children were hurt.
A witness told the Reuters news agency smoke and flames were seen coming from the building. A photo from the scene showed what appeared to be at least one body with a white cloth over it, Reuters reported.
Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and rescue workers toiled inside the wreckage of the hotel, which is about 110 yards from Cuba’s Capitol building. The hotel has been used frequently by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking U.S. government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay Z stayed at the Hotel Saratoga during a 2013 visit to Cuba.
Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was walking past the hotel when “the explosion threw me to the ground, and my head still hurts…. Everything was very fast.”
Yazira de la Caridad said the explosion shook her home a block from the hotel: “The whole building moved. I thought it was an earthquake.”
“I’ve still got my heart in my hand,” she said.
Mayiee Pérez said she rushed to the hotel after receiving a call from her husband, Daniel Serra, who works at a foreign exchange shop inside the hotel.
She said he told her: “I am fine, I am fine. They got us out.” But she was unable to reach him after that.
Reuters reported the hotel had been set for a post-pandemic reopening in four days, according to its Facebook page.
Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, meanwhile, said President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would not cancel a trip to Cuba planned for Sunday.
“Our solidarity to the victims and affected, as well as to the people of that dear brotherly people,” the minister tweeted.
AFP contributed to this report.