A powerful explosion damaged a hotel in the Cuban capital early Friday (Saturday morning AEST) killing at least eight people and injuring 13.
Havana police and firefighters are now combing through the rubble in the city center, looking for people who may be trapped.
Witnesses described a “massive explosion,” which appeared to destroy buses and cars outside the Hotel Saratoga, a 19th-century structure in Old Havana.
The explosion that tore off large sections of the exterior wall of the Hotel Saratoga is believed to have been caused by a gas leak, according to the Cuban Presidential Office.
“The First Secretary of the Party in Havana, Luis Antonio Torres Iríbar, explains that so far the death of 4 people has been confirmed. Search and rescue efforts continue at the hotel, where people may still be trapped,” reported the Cuban Presidential Office. in a tweet on Friday, adding that “all indications are that the explosion was caused by an accident.”
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the blast site on Friday as Mexico’s foreign minister tweeted his solidarity with the blast victims.
“Our solidarity with the victims and affected as well as with the people of that beloved and fraternal nation,” Marcelo Ebrard said in a tweet.
Images from the scene showed the building’s at least three-story blown-up facade adorned with green and white stucco.
Columns of dust and smoke could be seen rising around the rubble on the ground.
A school next door had been evacuated. Police cordoned off the area while firefighters and ambulance crews worked inside.
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, a mother of two children, said the explosion shook her house a block from the hotel: “The whole building moved. I thought it was an earthquake,” she said. “I still have my heart in my hand.”
Mayiee Pérez said she rushed to the scene 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 got us out,” but she hadn’t been able to contact him since.
The five-star hotel in Old Havana has two bars, two restaurants and a rooftop pool.