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Rescuers search for victims at hotel in Cuba after blast killed 22 people

HAVANA – Rescue workers in the Cuban capital scoured debris all night for more victims of a blast that killed at least 22 people and injured dozens, at a luxury hotel that once housed dignitaries and celebrities, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z

A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of Friday’s explosion at the 96-room Hotel Saratoga in Havana. The 19th-century building in Old Havana was not having any guests at the time as it was undergoing renovations ahead of a scheduled reopening on Tuesday.

Relatives of missing persons remained at the scene late Friday night as rescuers sifted through debris. Others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.

“I don’t want to move from here,” Cristina Avellar told The Associated Press near the hotel, whose exterior walls were blown away by the blast, exposing the interiors of many rooms.

Avellar was waiting for news from 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 regards them as a sister.

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Although no tourists were injured, the blast is the latest blow to the country’s vital tourism industry.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country was already struggling with former US President Donald Trump’s sanctions and keeping the Biden administration in place. The sanctions limited visits to the islands by US tourists and restricted remittances from Cubans in the US to their families in Cuba.

Tourism had started to revive a little earlier this year, but the war in Ukraine stifled a boom in Russian visitors, who made up almost a third of the tourists who came to Cuba last year.

The first floors of the hotel appeared to have sustained the most damage from Friday’s blast. The lack of walls made it possible to distinguish mattresses, pieces of furniture, hanging glass, torn curtains, and pillows covered in dust.

dr Julio Guerra Izquierdo, head of hospital services at the Health Ministry, said at least 74 people were injured. Among them were 14 children, according to a tweet from President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s office.

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Cuba’s national health minister, José Ángel Portal, told The Associated Press the number of casualties could rise if the search continues. Fire Department Lt. Col. Noel Silva said rescue workers were still searching for a large group of people who may have been under the rubble.

The search should go on all night. The destroyed hotel remained cordoned off while workers operated heavy machinery to lift huge sections of wall and masonry and trucks left the site laden with rubble. Firefighters and rescue workers worked in the rubble.

Authorities refused to release the names of the dead, even to their families. Authorities placed emergency lights at the site and brought in trained dogs to help with the search.

Rescuers declined to answer questions because authorities had ordered them not to create confusion.

A school with 300 students next to the hotel was evacuated. Havana Governor Reinaldo García Zapata said five of the students were slightly injured.

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The emblematic hotel is about 100 meters from the Cuban Capitol, which had broken glass and damaged masonry after the explosion.

The hotel was first renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revitalization of Old Havana and is owned by the Cuban military’s tourism company, 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 asking for more details about the hotel and the renovation.

In the past, the Hotel Saratoga was used by VIPs and politicians, including high-ranking US government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.

García Zapata said buildings adjacent to the hotel were being assessed, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Díaz-Canel said families in affected buildings have been moved to safer locations.

Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was walking past the hotel when “the explosion knocked me down and my head still hurts… It all happened very quickly.”

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Concerned relatives of people who had worked at the hotel turned up at a hospital to look for loved ones. Among them was Beatriz Céspedes Cobas, who was in tears looking for her sister.

“She had to work today. She’s a housekeeper,” she said. “I work two blocks away. I felt the noise and initially didn’t associate the explosion with the hotel at all.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is due to arrive in Havana late Saturday for a visit, and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would go ahead anyway.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/05/07/rescuers-look-for-victims-at-cuba-hotel-after-blast-kills-22/ Rescuers search for victims at hotel in Cuba after blast killed 22 people

Joel McCord

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