“It was not a bomb or an attack. It is a tragic accident,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who visited the site, said in a tweet. The explosion occurred as Cuba struggles to revive its key tourism sector that has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuban Health Minister José Ángel Portal told The Associated Press that hospitals had received some 40 injured people, but he estimated the number could rise as the search continues for people who may be trapped in the rubble of the 19th century structure in the city’s Old Havana neighborhood.
Granma reported that local officials said 13 people were missing. A primary school next to the hotel was evacuated and local media said no children were injured.
Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and rescuers worked inside the remains of the hotel, which is about 100 meters (110 yards) from Cuba’s Capitol building. The hotel has been frequently used by VIP visitors and political figures.
Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was walking past the hotel when “the explosion knocked me to the ground and my head still hurts… Everything happened very quickly.”
Yazira de la Caridad said the explosion shook her house a block from the hotel: “The whole building moved. I thought it was an earthquake.”
“I still have my heart in my hand,” he said.
Mayiee Pérez said she ran to the hotel after receiving a call from her husband, Daniel Serra, who works at a money exchange house inside the hotel.
She said he told her, “I’m fine, I’m fine. They kicked us out.” But she was unable to communicate with him after that.