Wednesday, 29 November, 2023

Rescue teams search for survivors as death toll rises in Havana hotel

Cuban rescue teams are desperately searching for survivors under the rubble of the famous Hotel Saratoga after an explosion, with 27 confirmed dead.

Rescuers recover a body at the site of Friday's deadly explosion that destroyed the five-star Hotel Saratoga, in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 7, 2022.
Rescuers recover a body at the site of Friday’s deadly explosion that destroyed the five-star Hotel Saratoga, in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, May 7, 2022. (AP)

Relatives of the missing in Cuba’s capital desperately searched for victims of an explosion at one of Havana's most luxurious hotels that killed at least 27 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 structure in the Old Havana neighborhood 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.

On Saturday evening, Dr. Julio Guerra Izquierdo, chief of hospital services at the Ministry of Health, raised the death toll to 27 with 81 people injured. The dead included four children and a pregnant woman. Spain's President Pedro Sánchez 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 during a news conference on Saturday that 51 workers had been inside the hotel at the time, as well as two people working on renovations. Of those, 11 were killed, 13 remained missing and six were hospitalised.

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

READ MORE: Cuba: Several dead, many injured after explosion at Havana hotel

'Thought it was a bomb'

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 façade 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 on Saturday in the shattered ruins, and rescuers using search dogs clambered over huge chunks of concrete looking for more. Relatives of missing people remained at the site while others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.

Gov. Reinaldo Garcia Zapata said on Saturday evening that 19 families have reported loved ones missing and that rescue efforts would continue.

Lt. Col. Enrique Pena briefed Comandante Ramiro Valdes, who fought alongside Fidel Castro, on the search efforts at the site. Peña said the presence of people had been detected on the first floor and in the basement and four teams of search dogs and handlers were working. He did not know if the victims were alive or dead.

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

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 like a sister.

Neighbors were still in shock a day after the explosion.

“I thought it was a bomb,” said Guillermo Madan, a 73-year-old retiree, who lives just meters from the building, but was not injured. The three-decade resident of the neighborhood was cooking and watching TV when he heard the blast. “My room moved from here to there. My neighbor’s window broke, the plates, everything.”

Katerine Marrero, 31, was shopping at the time. “I left the store, I felt the explosion,” she said. “Everyone started to run.”

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

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