Rescue workers scoured for survivors Friday afternoon after a large explosion rocked an upscale hotel in downtown Havana, killing at least eight people and injuring 40 others, Cuban officials said.
Preliminary information indicates the blast was likely caused by a gas leak, according to a stream of updates posted on President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s Twitter account. Díaz-Canel arrived at the scene shortly after the explosion and visited a hospital where victims were being treated, video and photos shared on social media Show.
Residents and tourists scattered after the blast while police and rescue workers flocked to the area and started combing through rubble left behind at the Hotel Saratoga, a five-star hotel in the historic center of Havana. The 19th century hotel is across the street from Cuba’s Capitol building and frequently hosts high-profile guests and politicians.
Cuba’s national health minister, José Ángel Portal, told The Associated Press that hospitals had received about 40 injured people, but he estimated that the number could rise as the search continues for people who may be trapped.
Havana Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata said the hotel was undergoing renovations and no tourists were staying there, according to Granma, the Cuban communist party’s newspaper. The hotel was expected to reopen next week after closing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, according to a Facebook post.
That year, the hotel was also placed on a list of prohibited accommodations for US citizens, according to the State Department. Before that, it was frequented by American celebrities and tourists.
“It has not been a bomb or an attack. It is a tragic accident,” Díaz-Canel 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.
Photos published by Cuban news ACN and Granma showed severe damage to the hotel’s walls and clouds of smoke billowing into the sky. Taxi cabs outside were pancaked by slabs of concrete that fell in the blast, photos show. Nearby, dust and other rubble also covered iconic vintage cars, which Cuba is known for.
A school next door to the hotel was also evacuated.
Yazira de la Caridad, a mother of two, 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 scene 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 had been unable to reach him since.
The 96-room hotel has two bars, two restaurants and a rooftop pool, according to its website.
Contributing: The Associated Press