A powerful explosion apparently caused by a natural gas leak killed at least 22 people, including a child, and injured dozens on Friday when it blew away outer walls from a luxury hotel in the heart of Cuba’s capital.
No tourists were staying at Havana’s 96-room Hotel Saratoga, because it was undergoing renovations, Havana Governor Reinaldo Garcia Zapata told the Communist Party of Cuba newspaper Granma.
“It’s not a bomb or an attack. It is a tragic accident,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who visited the site, said in a Twitter post.
Julio Guerra Izquierdo, chief of hospital services at the Cuban Ministry of Health, told reporters that at least 74 people had been injured.
Among them were 14 children, Diaz-Canel’s office said on Twitter.
Diaz-Canel said families in buildings near the hotel affected by the explosion had been transferred to safer locations.
Cuban state TV reported the explosion was caused by a truck that had been supplying natural gas to the hotel, but did not provide details on how the gas ignited. A white tanker truck was seen being removed from the site as rescue workers hosed it down with water.
The blast sent smoke billowing into the air around the hotel, with people on the street staring in awe and vehicles honking their horns as they sped away from the scene, video showed.
It happened as Cuba is struggling to revive its key tourism sector that was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuban Minister of Health Jose Angel Portal told reporters that the number of injured could rise as the search continues for people who might be trapped in the rubble of the 19th-century structure in the Old Havana neighborhood of the city.
“We are still looking for a large group of people who may be under the rubble,” Lieutenant Colonel Noel Silva of the Fire Department said.
A 300-student school next to the hotel was evacuated. Garcia said five of the students suffered minor injuries.
Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and rescue workers toiled inside the wreckage of the emblematic hotel about 100m from Cuba’s Capitol building.
The hotel was first 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 immediately respond to an e-mail seeking more details about the hotel and the renovation it was undergoing.
The explosion happened as Cuba’s government hosted the final day of a tourism convention in the iconic beach town of Varadero aimed at drawing investors.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was scheduled to arrive in Havana for a visit late yesterday and Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.
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