MEXICO CITY – A powerful explosion rocked in central Havana on Friday morning, according to officials, killing at least eight people and injuring dozens, destroying parts of a luxury hotel and damaging nearby buildings just yards from the Cuban capitol.
At least 13 people were reported missing, officials said, and videos and photos shared on social media showed ambulances rushing to the scene and much of the facade of the Saratoga Hotel destroyed, with rubble piled on the street and smoke billowing 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 was undergoing renovation work and was not open to guests at the time of the blast, government officials said.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel arrived at 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, at 11:10 am, was caused by a gas leak.
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.
“The whole building moved. I thought it was an earthquake, ”Yazira de la Caridad told The Associated Press, describing how the explosion shook her home a block from the hotel. “I’ve still got my heart in my hand.”
An iconic building dating to the 19th century, the Saratoga Hotel was reopened in 2005 as a luxury, five-star establishment. The hotel had been closed for two years because of the coronavirus 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 school who did not want to give her name said several students had been wounded. 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 to the Capitol in the wake of the blast.
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 comes just as Cuba’s all-important tourism sector was beginning to bounce back after being a hard hit during the coronavirus 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 jailing 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 country,” Mr. Ebrard said on Twitter.
Originally built in 1879, the Saratoga Hotel opened in the 1930s and was considered one of the most important hotels in Havana. Now owned by the Gaviota tourism group, the hotel has hosted international travelers for decades. Among its notable clients have been the guitarist Jimmy Page and the singer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
Hannah Berkley Cohen contributed reporting from Columbus, Ohio. Frances Robles contributed reporting from Miami, Fl.