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Tuesday July 5th, 2022 8:52PM

Desperate search for survivors in Cuba hotel blast; 27 dead

By The Associated Press
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HAVANA (AP) — Relatives of the missing in Cuba’s capital desperately searched Saturday 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 González said a Cuban-American tourist was also injured.

Representatives of Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, which owns the hotel, said during a news conference 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 hospitalized.

González 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 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 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 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.

A desperate 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 8 a.m. (Friday), and at this time I don’t know anything about her,” 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 coming up empty.

“I’m tired of the lies,” she said.

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

Lt. Col. Enrique Peña briefed Comandante Ramiro Valdés, 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 television 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.”

The explosion is another blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country was struggling with tightened sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump and kept in place the Biden administration. Those limited visits by U.S. tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the U.S. to their families in Cuba.

Tourism had started to revive somewhat early this year, but the war in Ukraine deflated a boom of Russian visitors, who accounted for almost a third of the tourists arriving in Cuba last year.

A 300-student school next to the hotel was evacuated.

The emblematic hotel had a stunning view of Cuba's center, including the domed Capitol building about 110 yards (100 meters) away. The Capitol suffered broken glass and damaged masonry from the explosion.

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. The company said it was investigating the cause of the blast and did not respond to an email from the AP seeking more details about the hotel and the renovation it was undergoing.

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

García Zapata said structures adjacent to the hotel were being evaluated, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Díaz-Canel said families in affected buildings had been transferred to safer locations.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador arrived in Havana for a visit late Saturday. He was scheduled to meet with Diaz Canel Sunday morning and return to Mexico Sunday night.

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