HAVANA - Rescuers in Cuba’s capital searched Saturday to find survivors of an explosion that killed at least 25 people and devastated a luxury hotel that once hosted dignitaries and celebrities, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of Friday’s blast at Havana’s 96-room Hotel Saratoga. The 19th-century structure in the city’s 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.
The death toll rose to 25 Saturday, according to Orestes Llánez, coordinator of the Havana city government, according to the official Cubadebate news site. He said 22 had been identified, 18 residents of the capital and four from elsewhere in Cuba.
He said searchers has managed to reach the hotel's basement in the hunt for possible survivors.
At least one survivor was found early Saturday in the shattered ruins of the hotel, and rescuers using search dogs clambered over huge chunks of concrete looking for more. Relatives of missing people remained at the site overnight. Others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.
HAVANA, CUBA - MAY 6: Several people search for missing victims in the ruins of the Saratoga hotel, recently destroyed by an explosion May 6, 2022, in Havana, Cuba. (Photo by Yander Zamora/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
"I don’t want to move from here," Cristina Avellar told The Associated Press near the hotel, whose outer walls were blown away by the explosion, leaving the interiors of many rooms exposed.
Avellar was waiting for news of Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier who has worked at the hotel for five years. She is the godmother of Barrera’s daughters and considers her like a sister.
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 U.S. President Donald Trump and kept in place the Biden administration. Those limited visits by U.S. tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the U.S. 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.
The hotel’s lower floors appeared to have suffered most of the damage from Friday's blast. The missing walls made it possible to distinguish mattresses, pieces of furniture, hanging glass, tattered curtains and cushions covered in dust.
Dr. Julio Guerra Izquierdo, chief of hospital services at the Ministry of Health, said at least 74 people had been injured. Among them were 14 children, according to a tweet from the office of President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
Cuba’s national health minister, José Ángel Portal, told The Associated Press the number of injured could rise as the search continues. Fire Department Lt. Col. Noel Silva said rescue workers were still looking for a large group of people who may be under the rubble.
The shattered hotel remained cordoned off as workers under the glow of emergency lights operated heavy machinery to lift huge pieces of wall and masonry and trucks left the site loaded with debris.
Rescuers declined to answer questions because the authorities had ordered them not to to avoid confusion.
A smashed car is seen as firefighters and rescue workers remove debris from the ruins of the Saratoga Hotel, in Havana, on May 6, 2022. (Photo by ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP via Getty Images)
A 300-student school next to the hotel was evacuated. Havana Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata said five of the students suffered minor injuries.
The emblematic hotel had a stunning view of Cuba's center, including the domed Capitol building about 110 yards (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 U.S. government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.
García Zapata said structures adjacent to the hotel were being evaluated, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Díaz-Canel said families in affected buildings had been transferred to safer locations.
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."
Worried relatives of people who had been working at the hotel showed up at a hospital to look for loved ones. Among them was Beatriz Céspedes Cobas, who was tearfully searching for her sister.
"She had to work today. She is a housekeeper," she said. "I work two blocks away. I felt the noise, and at first, I didn’t even associate" the explosion with the hotel.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was scheduled to arrive in Havana for a visit late Saturday and Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.