May 07, (THEWILL) – At least 22 people have died and more than 60 hospitalised, after a massive explosion rocked one of Cuba’s most exclusive five-star hotels.
It is believed that a gas tanker, which was parked outside the Saratoga Hotel in Old Havana, ignited, causing an explosion which destroyed several floors of the building.
The historic hotel was set for a post-pandemic reopening in four days. It now lies in ruins, with much of its outer wall torn off.
Search and rescue operations are currently underway to locate people trapped under the debris.
The Cuban presidency said the dead included a pregnant woman and a child. The injured are being treated at nearby hospitals.
Yazira de la Caridad, who lives a block from the hotel, told CBS News she “thought [the explosion] was an earthquake.”
Witnesses said they saw plumes of black smoke and clouds of dust billowing into the sky, following the explosion.
A school which is located directly behind the hotel was unaffected, with local officials confirming all its children have been safely evacuated.
Cuba’s President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, has visited the damage site, which sits opposite the government’s old congressional building. The president said: “It was not a bomb or an attack, it’s an unfortunate accident.”
The incident comes as tourism in the country was re-emerging from two difficult years, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Saratoga Hotel, a landmark in the colonial district of the capital, had been closed for refurbishment during much of this period.
The 19th century building is synonymous in Havana with visiting celebrities, after stars, including Madonna, Beyonce and Mick Jagger, stayed there during the thaw between Havana and Washington, under President Barack Obama.