Havana explosion damages Hotel Saratoga; at least nine dead

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An explosion at a historic five-star hotel in Old Havana on Friday morning killed at least nine people and destroyed much of the building, Cuban officials said.

Thirteen people were missing and 40 people injured after the blast rocked the Hotel Saratoga, across from the Cuban Capitol, around 11 am Firefighters and a rescue team continued to search the rubble for victims, the Cuban presidency tweeted.

The cause of the explosion was unclear, officials said, but a preliminary investigation pointed to a gas leak.

“It wasn’t a bomb or an attack,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel said. “It’s an unfortunate accident.”

The hotel was preparing to reopen on Tuesday after closing two years ago during the coronavirus pandemic, it said in an April 28 Facebook post, the most recent on its page. Havana Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata said the hotel was undergoing repairs and there were no tourists inside, according to the Communist Party newspaper Granma.

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Videos and images on social media showed the facade of the hotel blasted away, smoke filling the air and crowds gathering in the street outside. A photo published by the news agency Reuters showed at least one body in the street outside the hotel covered with a sheet.

Witnesses outside the historic five-star Hotel Saratoga in Havana filmed the aftermath of the explosion on May 8 that left at least nine people dead. (Video: Washington Post)

“The explosion knocked me from my chair,” said Lester Fernández, 25, who lives less than a five-minute walk from the Saratoga. “A piece of my ceiling fell. I quickly ran down the stairs and I thought it was my building that was falling,” he said, before realizing it was the hotel. “It was a complete disaster.”

David Duque, a 30-year-old travel blogger, was about to start a photo shoot about five blocks from the Hotel Saratoga when he felt the city rumble and heard the roaring thunder of the blast.

“We thought it was a bomb or an attack,” Duque said. “I was so nervous that my legs were shaking. I didn’t know what to do. … In Cuba, we’ve never felt something like this.”

He rushed to the hotel and found a scene of chaos and confusion. He saw the bloodied faces of elderly people who had been passing by the hotel or on nearby buses at the time of the blast. He saw uniformed hotel workers standing on what was left of the upper floors of the building and screaming for help. He saw children running and others helping pull people out of the rubble.

“I felt paralyzed,” he said. “We were scared to get too close. We didn’t know what could happen next.”

A tweet from the presidency showed an injured child in a hospital bed, a patch over one eye, as Díaz-Canel visited with patients. A school is located in front of the hotel. All of its students were evacuated safely, Cuban officials said.

The Saratoga, which was built in the 1930s and renovated in 2005, has 96 rooms, two bars, two restaurants, a spa, and a rooftop pool with a panoramic view of the Cuban capital, according to its website. Guests have reportedly included Beyoncé and Madonna.

The hotel explosion was the latest blow to Cuba’s tourism industry, which officials say is the No. 1 source of hard currency for an island heavily dependent on imports and struggling through its worst economic crisis in three decades. After the coronavirus pandemic started, Cuba sharply limited tourism, only fully opening the country last November.

Officials at Cuba’s annual tourism fair, held in recent days, said 313,900 foreigners visited in the first quarter, up from 48,000 in the same period last year — but still well below the 981,900 in 2020. They blamed the drop on the fact that many people were only beginning to make plans to travel again.

“We are recovering little by little,” Maria del Carmen Orellana, Cuba’s vice-minister of tourism, said in an interview last month. “We’re hoping for a good summer,” she said, noting reservations were up for coming months.

Still, the island’s tourism sector is struggling in numerous ways. Canadians and Europeans usually account for the highest number of visitors, but as winter ends in those regions, trips to the Caribbean drop. During the pandemic, Russians had become the top group of tourists, many traveling via a special “bubble” arrangement aimed at keeping them at beach resorts and away from Cubans. But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s been virtually impossible for Russian flights to reach Cuba.

President Donald Trump added sanctions to the decades-old US trade embargo, many aimed at travel. He banned American cruise ships from visiting Cuba, forbade airline flights to cities outside Havana, the capital, and prohibited Americans from staying at hundreds of hotels, saying they were linked to the communist government and its allies. Among them is the Saratoga, the site of Friday’s blast.

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Duque, the travel blogger, lives outside of Havana but goes into the city almost every day to take photos promoting its architecture. By Friday afternoon, he was still shaken by the scene at the hotel, which he described as an iconic piece of Cuban heritage.

I hoped the hotel wouldn’t need to be demolished. “It would be a great loss,” he said.

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