Havana hotel toll rises to 30; Dogs look for survivors

HAVANA (AP) — Search parties with dogs hunted through the ruins of a luxury hotel in Cuba’s capital on Sunday for survivors of a devastating blast, while officials pushed the known death toll to 30.

The 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 and the outer walls spilled into the busy streets on mid-morning, just a block from the Capitol, construction blew up on Friday.

Cuban officials on Sunday increased the known death toll from 27 to 30, although crews continued to search for victims buried under piles of shattered concrete. Several nearby buildings were also damaged, including the historic Marti Theater and the Calvary Baptist Church, the headquarters of the faith community in western Cuba.

The church said on its Facebook page that the building suffered “significant structural damage with several collapsed or cracked walls and columns (and) the partially collapsed ceiling,” although no church workers were injured.

According to the Ministry of Health, 84 people were injured in the explosion on Friday. Among the dead were four minors, a pregnant woman and a Spanish tourist whose companion was seriously injured.

The ministry also released the names of those who died on Sunday. About 24 people remained in the hospital.

On Saturday, a representative from Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, which owns the hotel, said 13 of their employees remain missing. Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata said Saturday night that 19 families had reported missing and that rescue efforts were continuing.

Authorities said the cause of the blast is still under investigation but believed it was caused by a gas leak. A large crane heaved a charred gas tanker out of the rubble on Saturday.

According to the city administration, the burials of the victims have begun. But some were still awaiting news of missing friends and relatives.

“We hope that something will come out about my cousin’s mother,” Angela Acosta told The Associated Press near the site of the blast. Her relative, María de la Concepción Alard, lived in an apartment next to the hotel with a black labrador who was rescued along with another dog on Sunday.

Crews have been working to clean up the streets around the hotel and by late Saturday foot traffic had resumed at a significant rate.

“There are mothers who are without their children today,” said Matha Verde, a manicurist who was walking near the Saratoga, on Sunday as Cuba celebrated Mother’s Day. She said she is telling women who lost their sons or daughters in the blast that they “must move on”.

The blast added to the woes of a key tourism industry that had been stifled by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as tightened sanctions by former US President Donald Trump and the Biden administration held in place. These limited visits by US tourists to the islands and limited 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 dampened a boom in Russian visitors, who made up almost a third of the tourists who came to Cuba last year.

The Saratoga, which had closed during the pandemic, was one of Havana’s elite properties, often hosting VIPs and celebrities.

Some attention in Cuba has gradually turned to an official visit from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who arrived Saturday evening and met with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Sunday. López Obrador just finished a five-country tour that started in Central America.

Díaz-Canel visited Mexico during last year’s Independence Day celebrations. López Obrador recently spoke out against the US administration’s apparent intention to exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the Summit of the Americas it will host in Los Angeles in June.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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