At least nine people were killed and 40 injured Friday after the strong explosion, probably due to a gas leak, which partially destroyed the Saratoga hotel in central Havana.

“So far there are nine dead and 40 people injured,” said President Miguel Diaz-Canel on Twitter, who offered his “deepest condolences” to the relatives of the victims.

The balance sheet is still changing

Earlier, Miguel Garcia, director of the Calixto Garcia hospital where some of the injured are being treated, had reported that 11 injured were “in extremely serious condition”. “A two-year-old child is undergoing surgery for a fractured skull,” said Miguel Hernan Estévez, director of the Hermanos Almejeiras hospital.

For his part, the first secretary of the Communist Party in Havana, Luis Antonio Torres Iribar, had specified at midday that “13 people (were) missing” and warned: “Search and rescue work continues in the ‘hotel, where other people may be trapped’ under the rubble. No foreigners are believed to be among the victims, authorities said.

Closed for two years for works

Emblematic establishment of Old Havana with its green facade, the hotel, under construction, had been closed to tourists for two years. The only employees inside were preparing for its reopening, scheduled for May 10.

“According to the first findings, the explosion was caused by a gas leak”, is it specified on the Twitter account of the Cuban presidency. According to the manager of the historic district of Havana, Alexis Costa Silva, quoted by the state media Cubadebate, a canister of liquid gas was being changed in the hotel. The cook smelled gas and discovered a crack in the pipe which caused the explosion.

“It was neither a bomb nor an attack, it was a regrettable accident”, declared President Diaz-Canel, who arrived on the spot shortly after, thus wanting to put an end to rumors on social networks which evoked the attacks in the bomb that occurred in several hotels in the 1990s, sponsored by Cuban exiles.

“A terrible explosion”

The first four floors of the 5-star rated Saratoga Hotel with its 96 rooms, two restaurants and rooftop pool were blown up in the blast, which occurred around 11:00 a.m. local time (1500 GMT) and the ground was littered debris and pieces of glass, noted AFP journalists. A few minutes after the explosion, a thick cloud of smoke and dust spread over the avenue du Prado, where this establishment is located, close to the famous public building of the Capitol.

There was “a huge” explosion and “a cloud of dust that reached the park (in front of the hotel), many people ran out”, testified to AFP Rogelio Garcia, the driver of a pedicab which was passing in front of the Saratoga at the time of the tragedy. “There was a terrible explosion and everything collapsed,” said a woman, her face covered in dust, who did not want to give her name.

Known for hosting Mick Jagger or Madonna

Several vehicles were destroyed near this hotel, known for having hosted several celebrities in recent years including Mick Jagger, Beyoncé and Madonna. Built in 1880 to house shops, the building was transformed into a hotel in 1933 and renovated to make it a luxury establishment in 2005.

The forces of order, who arrived in large numbers, isolated the perimeter while the rescuers searched for possible additional victims in the rubble at the foot of Saratoga. A dozen ambulances and five fire engines were present on the spot, the latter trying to cool the gas depot by spraying water on it, AFP noted. In the middle of the afternoon, a machine began to remove part of the rubble. President Diaz-Canel, who also went to a hospital where the wounded were being treated, told the doctors: “Be the best, we must save ours”.

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