According to official counts, a huge explosion caused by a suspected gas leak ripped through a Havana hotel in central Havana on Friday, killing at least 22 people.
In the early evening, rescuers rescued four bodies from the wreckage as they searched the ruins of the famous Saratoga Hotel for survivors.
Officials claimed at least one woman found alive under the wreckage was alive, and that they feared additional survivors were still trapped and that a canine unit was searching for them.
The president of Cuba blamed the big explosion on a gas leak.
“It was neither a bomb nor an attack, it was an unfortunate accident,” said Miguel Diaz-Canel, who arrived at the scene an hour after the blast, accompanied by the prime minister and National Assembly president.
“Compatriots and friends around the world. #Havana is in shock today,” he tweeted.
After a day in which ambulances and paramedics raced through the heart of Cuba’s historic capital, the latest death toll of 22 was broadcast on television news, including at least one kid.
Hundreds of people were hurt, according to the health ministry and the Cuban presidency, but the numbers varied from 50 to 65.
The establishment’s first four levels, which had been closed to guests while being refurbished, were devastated in the late-morning blast, which sent a cloud of dust and smoke billowing into the air.
The blast also ripped off big sections of the hotel’s front, blew out windows, and wrecked automobiles parked outside the five-star hotel, which has welcomed superstars like Madonna, Beyonce, Mick Jagger, and Rihanna in the past.
A nearby Baptist church’s dome also fell.
Employees were prepping for the hotel’s post-refurbishment reopening, which is set for next Tuesday.
A two-year-old boy had surgery for a fractured skull, according to Miguel Hernan Estevez, director of the Hermanos Almejeiras hospital.
“So far we have no information that any foreigner was either injured or killed, but… this is preliminary information,” added Tourism Minister Juan Carlos Garcia Granda.
How the Explosion Happened
The explosion happened as a gas tank was being replaced, according to Roberto Calzadilla of state business Gaviota, which operates the hotel.
Ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the site on Friday, and police roped off the area, dispersing the crowds that had gathered near the hotel near Havana’s iconic National Capitol Building, which once housed Congress before the Cuban revolution.
It is also close to a school, although according to the presidency, no students were wounded.
“We felt a large explosion and (saw) a cloud of dust,” said Rogelio Garcia, a bicycle taxi driver who was passing the hotel at the time of the disaster. “A large number of people left.”
“There was a big explosion, and everything collapsed,” claimed a woman who declined to give her name because her face was covered in dust.
The Saratoga Hotel, according to its website, is a high-end hotel with 96 rooms, two bars, two restaurants, a spa, and a gym.
It was constructed in 1880 as a shopping mall and transformed to a hotel in 1933.
On Twitter, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “The United States expresses heartfelt condolences to all those affected by the sad explosion this morning.”
Meanwhile, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s scheduled trip to Cuba on Sunday would not be canceled.
“Our hearts go out to the victims and those who have been impacted, as well as the people of our great sister country,” Ebrard tweeted.
Bolivia, the EU’s foreign policy leader Josep Borrell, and Nicolas Maduro, the president of close Cuban ally Venezuela, expressed their condolences, saying that “the Cuban people have the sympathy and support of all the peoples of the globe,” particularly Venezuelans.