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26 dead as search for survivors of Cuba hotel blast continues

Rescue teams remove debris from the site (Ramon Espinosa/AP)
Rescue teams remove debris from the site (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Relatives of the missing in Cuba’s capital searched on Saturday for victims of an explosion at one of Havana’s most luxurious hotels that killed at least 26 people.

They checked the morgue, hospitals and if unsuccessful, they returned to the partially collapsed Hotel Saratoga, where rescuers used dogs to hunt for survivors.

A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of Friday’s blast at the 96-room hotel.

The 19th-century building in Old Havana did not have any guests at the time because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a planned Tuesday reopening after being closed for two years during the pandemic.

Havana city officials raised the death toll to 26 on Saturday, according to the official Cubadebate news site.

Cuba Hotel Explosion
A curtain covered in debris hangs from the exposed facade of the five-star Hotel Saratoga (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

The dead included four children and a pregnant woman.

Spain’s president Pedro Sanchez said via Twitter that a Spanish tourist was among the dead and that another Spaniard was seriously injured.

Cuban authorities confirmed the tourist’s death and said her partner was injured. They were not staying at the hotel.

Tourism minister Dalila Gonzalez said a Cuban-American tourist was also injured.

Representatives of Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, which owns the hotel, said on Saturday that 51 workers had been inside the hotel at the time, as well as two people working on renovations.

Cuba Hotel Explosion
A worker operates a claw crane to remove debris (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Of those, 11 were killed, 13 remained missing and six were were in hospital.

The cause of the blast was still under investigation, but a large crane hoisted a charred gas tanker from the hotel’s rubble early Saturday.

Search and rescue teams worked through the night and into Saturday, using ladders to descend through the rubble and twisted metal into the hotel’s basement as heavy machinery gingerly moved away piles of the building’s facade to allow access.

Above, chunks of drywall dangled from wires, desks sat seemingly undisturbed inches from the void where the front of the building cleaved away.

At least one survivor was found early Saturday in the shattered ruins, and rescuers using search dogs clambered over huge chunks of concrete looking for more.

Cuba Hotel Explosion
People watch the rescue effort (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Relatives of missing people remained at the site while others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.

Yatmara Cobas stood outside the perimeter waiting for word of her daughter, 27-year-old housekeeper Shaidis Cobas.

“My daughter is in the Saratoga; she’s been there since 8am (Friday), and at this time I don’t know anything about her,” Ms Cobas said.

“She’s not at the morgue, she’s not in the hospital.” The mother said she had gone everywhere seeking answers from authorities, but found nothing.

“I’m tired of the lies,” she said.

“I don’t want to move from here,” Cristina Avellar told The Associated Press near the hotel.

Cuba Hotel Explosion
A member of a rescue team searches for survivors (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Ms Avellar was waiting for news of Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier who has worked at the hotel for five years. She is the godmother of Barrera’s daughters and considers her a sister.

Neighbours were still in shock a day after the explosion.

“I thought it was a bomb,” said Guillermo Madan, 73, who lives just metres from the building, but was not injured.

“My room moved from here to there. My neighbour’s window broke, the plates, everything.”

Although no tourists were reported injured, the explosion is another blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry.

Cuba Hotel Explosion
Firefighters spray a tanker truck with water in order to cool it down as they remove it from the site (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country was struggling with tightened sanctions imposed by former US president Donald Trump and kept in place the Joe Biden administration.

Those limited visits by US tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the US to their families in Cuba.

Dr Julio Guerra Izquierdo, chief of hospital services at the ministry of health, said at least 74 people had been injured.

Among them were 14 children, according to a tweet from the office of president Miguel Díaz-Canel.

The hotel was 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.

In the past, the Hotel Saratoga has been used by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking US government delegations. Beyonce and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.

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