December 3, 2022

Rescuers comb through Havana hotel blast rubble, death toll climbs to 26

Rescuers remove debris on May 7, 2022 following an explosion at Havana's Saratoga Hotel the day before


Rescuers remove debris on May 7, 2022 following an explosion at Havana’s Saratoga Hotel the day before – Copyright AFP NELSON ALMEIDA

Rigoberto DIAZ

Rescuers combed through what remained of a luxury Havana hotel Saturday, as the death toll after a powerful blast due to a suspected gas leak climbed to 26, authorities said.

No survivors were found in the upper floors of the prestigious Saratoga Hotel and rescuers said they were now concentrating their efforts on the jumbled debris filling the two-level basement of the neoclassical building.

Authorities reported Saturday that 46 people had been hospitalized. There was meanwhile some confusion after a Red Cross official gave a death toll of 32, but the higher number was later reported to be “an error.”

The hotel had been closed for business during renovation work, and many victims of Friday’s explosion were either construction workers or hotel employees preparing for its reopening.

But one Spanish man — a 29-year-old tourist who had been walking nearby — died in the blast.

So far, 11 hotel employees have been identified among the dead, said Roberto Enriquez Calzadilla, a spokesman for the state-run tourism group Gaviota, which operates the hotel.

He said the explosion happened while a gas tank was being refilled by a tanker truck.

– A cry for help –

Officials said the dead included four children and adolescents. More than a dozen of those hospitalized were listed in critical or serious condition.

With the search now turning toward the building’s basement levels — a woman’s cry for help was heard emanating from there on Friday afternoon — tons of smoking debris have complicated the task.

“My daughter works in the Saratoga — she’s been there (under the rubble) since… yesterday morning, and in all this time I still don’t know anything,” an anguished Yaumara Cobas told journalists, adding that she had checked with a hospital and the morgue.

“We’ve got to push on,” said longtime Politburo member Ramiro Valdes, a veteran of the Cuban revolution. “Some of our comrades could still be down there — alive.”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced the Spanish tourist’s death on Twitter and offered condolences to survivors and their families. “All our love to their families and those of all the victims and injured. Our support also to the Cuban people,” he added.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel deplored the loss of life in a Twitter message, while commending those Cubans who had rushed to donate blood for survivors.

“Solidarity has prevailed. #FuerzaCuba,” he added.

Officials from the United States, Canada, the European Union, China, Russia and Venezuela sent messages of condolence.

– Days before reopening –

The first four floors of the establishment, which were closed to guests while being renovated, were gutted in the late-morning blast that sent dust and smoke billowing into the air.

The explosion tore off large parts of the facade, blew out windows and destroyed cars parked outside the five-star hotel, which has in the past hosted celebrities such as Madonna, Beyonce, Mick Jagger and Rihanna.

The dome of a nearby Baptist church also collapsed.

With the hotel’s renovations nearly complete, its reopening had been scheduled for next Tuesday.

Ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the scene Friday and police cordoned off the area, dispersing people who swarmed to the hotel near Havana’s emblematic National Capitol Building, which housed Congress prior to the Cuban revolution.

The Saratoga was built in 1880 to house shops. It was converted into a hotel in 1933 and was renovated as a luxury establishment in 2005.