Cuba explosion: last body recovered from Havana hotel ruin, taking toll to 45

Cuban rescue workers have recovered the body of the 45th and last person believed missing after an explosion blew the sides off a luxury hotel in historic Havana.

The blast on 6 May at the five-star Hotel Saratoga – a block from the city’s famous Capitol building, in a renovated area of Havana popular with tourists – left more than 100 people trapped, killed or injured. Fifteen remain hospitalised.

Officials say a gas leak caused the explosion.

Rescue workers at Hotel Saratoga in Havana.
Rescue workers at Hotel Saratoga in Havana. Photograph: Yander Zamora/EPA

Luis Carlos Guzman, chief of Cuba’s firefighting corps, told reporters at the site of the blast that the woman whose body had been recovered, believed to be a waitress at the hotel, was “as of now, the last missing person”.

The hotel was in the process of being renovated after a two-year closure due to the pandemic, and had been due to open this week.

Most of those killed or injured were Cuban staff or passersby, including a Spanish tourist and a pregnant woman. Several children from a nearby school were injured and four were killed.

Recovery work at the hotel.
Recovery work at the hotel. Photograph: Yander Zamora/EPA

Shortly after the recovery of what was believed to be the last body, the Cuban president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, declared a period of national mourning.

For days, rescue workers have sifted through piles of debris at the base of the hotel’s neo-classical style building, which is more than a century old.

Experts have begun to consider the fate of the 19th-century former warehouse that was converted into a hotel early in the last century.

Roberto Enriquez, a spokesman for the military-owned Gaviota tourism company that operates the Saratoga, said experts’ initial estimates were that 80% of the hotel was damaged by Friday’s explosion, which hurled tonnes of concrete chunks into busy streets and seriously harmed neighbouring structures.

Rescue crew rest in Havana.
Rescue crew rest in Havana. Photograph: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

He said that when rescue efforts finished, authorities would look more deeply into what to do with the ruin.

Also badly damaged was Cuba’s most important Baptist church, which is next door to the Saratoga. The explosion shook the church and shattered the 19th-century dome. Concrete plunged from walls, and wood and glass showered down from the windows. Parts of the upper floors collapsed at the building, which houses not only Calvary Baptist Church but a seminary and the denomination’s headquarters for western Cuba.

The famous, elegant building now known as the Teatro Marti was just a few years old when, in 1887, Baptists began holding services across the street on a corner in Old Havana that had once held a circus. Cuba was still a Spanish colony and its Capitol building – modelled on the US Capitol – would not be built nearby for a few decades yet.