MEXICO CITY – A powerful explosion rocked in central Havana on Friday morning, destroying parts of a luxury hotel and damaging nearby buildings just yards from the Cuban Capitol building.
At least 22 people were killed and dozens were injected, the president’s office said. More were missing. Among the dead were a pregnant woman and a child.
The devastating blast came as Cuba is trying to revive a tourism industry that is a key pillar of its fragile economy and that had been upgraded by the pandemic.
Videos and photos shared on social media showed ambulances rushing to the scene and much of the facade of the Hotel Saratoga destroyed. Rubble was piled on the street, and smoke billowed into the sky.
“There was a stink, like a chemical, that burned your nose,” said Miriam Díaz, 56, a Havana resident who lives behind the hotel and was on a bus arriving home at the time of the blast. “We couldn’t get out because the door wouldn’t open.”
The hotel, a popular destination for international visitors and celebrations, was undergoing renovation work and was not open to guests at the time of the blast, government officials said.
Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, went to the scene shortly after the explosion, along with Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz. The office of the Cuban presidency said on Twitter that preliminary investigations indicated the explosion, shortly before 11 am, was caused by a gas leak.
At least 64 people, including 50 adults and 14 children, were initially hospitalized as a result of the blast, officials said. Many apartments were damaged, and those residents affected were being transferred to a safe location while repairs were carried out.
“Havana is in shock today after the accidental explosion of a gas tank at the Hotel Saratoga, which caused a large part of the building to collapse, ” Díaz-Canel wrote on Twitter. “Our deepest condolences and sincere support to the families and friends of the victims.”
The explosion at a prominent hotel called to both a series of hotel bombings in Havana in the 1990s linked to militant exiles. But the authorities were quick to dismiss any speculation that the blast had been deliberate.
“This wasn’t in any way a bomb or an attack,” Mr. Díaz-Canel told reporters at the scene. It was “an unfortunate accident.”
The president’s office added that search and rescue efforts were still being carried out, with people potentially still trapped in the rubble. Officials suggested that the blast happened just outside the hotel.
“I felt the explosion,” said Pablo Morales, 21, an engineering student who lives just a few blocks from the hotel. “It shook the street. It shook the ground. It shook the windows. ”
An iconic building dating to the 19th century, the Hotel Saratoga was reopened in 2005 as a luxury, five-star establishment. The hotel had been closed for two years because of the pandemic, according to its Facebook page, and was set to reopen next week.
Among the buildings damaged was the nearby Concepción Arenal School. A teacher from the school who did not want to give her name said several students had been injured. She said the windows were blown out, with shards of glass flying a considerable distance.
The local director of education told Cuban media that five students were injected in the blast.
“It’s shocking,” said Ms. Díaz, whose daughter attends the school but was unharmed by the blast. “It’s really very tough.”
State media reported that children were evacuated in the wake of the blast, and officials said later that students would be able to attend classes in other schools starting Monday.
The nearby church was also badly damaged.
“The walls fell down completely. The roof of the church caved in, ”said Mr. Morales, who was a parishioner. “All the windows, there wasn’t a single one left – not in the church and not in the Martí Theater that’s in front.”
As rescue workers moved in, Mr. Morales got he watched people being pulled from the rubble. At least three were dead.
“They were destroyed,” they said. “You could see a lot of blood.”
The Cuban Communist Party newspaper, Granma, said on Twitter that the explosion occurred “while liquefied gas was presumably being moved from a truck.”
The explosion came as Cuba’s all-important tourism sector was beginning to bounce back after being a hard hit during the pandemic. The island nation has been shut off to visitors for months, plunging Cuba into one of its worst economic crises in history.
“This has to give people a break about whether Havana is really ready to reopen,” said Renata Keller, a Cuba expert at the University of Nevada in Reno. Cubans “really need this recovery in the tourism industry and this explosion is not going to help.”
The disappearance of tourists deprived Cuba of a vital foreign currency that is heavily dependent on, exacerbating the financial challenges caused by the decades-long US embargo.
The economic crisis set off one of the largest protest movements in Cuban history, with thousands of people taking to the streets in cities across the country. A subsequent government crackdown has led to the sentencing of dozens of people for crimes, including sedition.
The explosion occurred after Cuba hosted an international tourism fair in the nearby resort town of Varadero.
Shortly after the blast, calls spread on social media for blood donations to help victims of the explosion. Photos shared online showed Cubans lining up to donate at a blood bank in Havana.
Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, said on Friday afternoon that the upcoming visit of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the island would go ahead as planned.
“Our solidarity with the victims and those affected as well as the people of this dear brotherly nation,” Mr. Ebrard said on Twitter.
Originally built in 1880, the Saratoga was considered one of the most important hotels in Havana in the 1930s, according to its website. It initially served as a tobacco warehouse and store, along with some apartments. It was built at a different location before it was moved to its current address on Paseo del Prado, a long and popular avenue that cuts through Havana. It was turned into a hotel in the 1930s.
Now owned by the state-run Gaviota tourism group, the hotel has hosted international travelers for decades. Among its notable clients have been guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
Hannah Berkeley Cohen contributed reporting from Columbus, Ohio. Frances Robles contributed reporting from Miami, Fl.