Havana hotel death toll rises to 31 as search for survivors continues

Members of the Red Cross play with a dog rescued from the rubble on Sunday at the site of a deadly explosion that destroyed the five-star Saratoga hotel in Old Havana, Cuba on Friday. Ismael Francisco/Associated Press

HAVANA – The death toll from a powerful explosion at a luxury hotel in the Cuban capital rose to 31 on Sunday evening as search teams with dogs hunted through the rubble of the iconic 19th-century building in the search for persons still missing.

Hotel Saratoga, a 96-room five-star hotel in Old Havana, was preparing to reopen after being closed for two years when an apparent gas leak ignited, blowing the exterior walls onto the busy streets in the middle morning one block from the nation’s capitol. building on Friday.

Several nearby structures were also damaged, including the historic Marti Theater and Calvary Baptist Church, the denomination’s headquarters in western Cuba. The church said on its Facebook page that the building had suffered “extensive structural damage, with several collapsed or cracked walls and columns (and) the ceiling partially collapsed”, although no church staff were involved. been injured.

Publishing the names of those killed, the Health Ministry said the dead included four minors, a pregnant woman and a Spanish tourist, whose companion was seriously injured.

The ministry also said 54 people were injured, 24 of them hospitalized. He had previously reported 85 injured, but that tally turned out to include those killed by the blast.

Nineteen families had reported missing persons as of Saturday evening, but authorities did not say Sunday whether the number had changed.

Authorities said the cause of the explosion at the hotel owned by Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA was still under investigation, but believed it was caused by a gas leak. A large crane hoisted a charred tanker truck out of the rubble on Saturday.

Burials for the victims had begun, city officials said, while some people were still awaiting news of missing friends and relatives.

“We hope that something will be known about my cousin’s mother,” Angela Acosta told The Associated Press near the site of the explosion. His relative, María de la Concepción Alard, lived in an apartment adjacent to the hotel with a black Labrador, which was rescued along with another dog on Sunday.

Crews worked to clear the streets around the hotel and by Saturday evening heavy foot traffic had resumed.

“There are mothers who are without their children today,” Matha Verde, a manicurist who strolled near Saratoga, said Sunday during the celebration of Mother’s Day in Cuba. She said she told women who had lost their sons or daughters in the blast that they “must keep going”.

The blast added to the woes of a crucial tourism industry that had been stifled by the coronavirus pandemic as well as tougher sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and the continued Biden administration. These limited visits by American tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the United States to their families in Cuba.

Tourism had started to pick up earlier this year, but the war in Ukraine deflated a boom in Russian visitors, who made up nearly a third of tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.

The Saratoga, which had been closed during the pandemic, was one of Havana’s elite accommodations, often hosting VIPs and visiting celebrities. Its owner is one of the Cuban army companies.

Some attention in Cuba has begun to turn to an official visit by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who arrived Saturday evening at the end of a five-country tour that began in Central America.

López Obrador met Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Sunday, who awarded him the Order of José Marti “for his great achievements for humanity”. It is the most important award that the country bestows on a foreigner.

Díaz-Canel’s office said in a tweet that López Obrador had said he would urge US President Biden not to exclude Cuba from the Summit of the Americas he will host in Los Angeles in June.

López Obrador said the goals of the trip included signing agreements on trade, health, education and cooperation with the island, while ratifying his position on foreign policy.

“We are not in favor of hegemonies,” he said. “Let no one exclude anyone because we are independent countries, we are sovereign countries, and no one can place themselves above the rights of peoples and nations.”

Díaz-Canel visited Mexico during Independence Day celebrations last year. López Obrador recently spoke out against the US government’s apparent intention to exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the upcoming summit.

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Sandy A. Greer