Speaking at the scene soon afterwards, the Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, ruled out a bomb and said the blast at the Hotel Saratoga appeared to have been caused by a gas leak.
“In no case was it a bomb or an attack,” he later told Reuters as he left the capital’s Calixto Garcia hospital, where many of the injured were treated. ‘It’s just a very unfortunate accident.”
The hotel was closed to tourists at the time of the explosion, but workers were inside. State TV reported search and rescue efforts were ongoing and said it was unclear whether additional victims remained trapped in the rubble.
Photos published by government news media showed much of the hotel’s outer wall blown away, exposing interior rooms, with clouds of dust billowing into the sky.
Roberto Enrique Calzadilla, a representative of the military-run company that operates many of the country’s hotels, said the 96-room hotel had been set to reopen in the next few days and that the workers on site were making final preparations.
“The workers were … making repairs and doing all the work to open the property and in the morning they were resupplying the gas and it seems some accident caused an explosion,” he said on state television.
Police and rescue workers flocked to the scene, cordoning off areas and buildings nearby, including the Capitolio building.
Windows in the surrounding streets were blown out by the force of the explosion, and two hours after the explosion, an acrid smell lingered in the air.
“I was walking past when everything went white and I couldn’t see anything,” said one woman who lives just a block from the hotel.
Habaneros living in the colonial part of the city are accustomed to the sudden collapse of once-elegant buildings, which are often home to dozens of families but have received little maintenance for decades.
But the thunderous noise the explosion made was something different: within 15 minutes of the explosion, more than 10,000 people had congregated outside the rubble-strewn structure, taking pictures and uploading videos.
Yazira de la Caridad, mother of two, told AP that the explosion shook her home a block from the hotel. “The whole building moved. I thought it was an earthquake,” she said. “I’ve still got my heart in my hand.”
The disaster was yet another blow to the island’s struggling tourism industry, which the government relies on for hard currency but has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and tighter US sanctions.
“It means that less tourists will come because of fear,” said Jiskli Águila, 51, who works in a furniture factory, and was watching TV two blocks away when the explosion happened. “And with the problems in the economy and the state of the country – it’s just one thing after another.”
The 96-room neo-classical-style hotel was remodeled by a British company after the fall of the Soviet Union and was considered the place to go for visiting government officials and celebrities for many years.
Madonna and Beyoncé have both stayed at the five-star hotel, although recently it had lost some of its shine with the opening of new hotels in Havana.
The hotel had been set for a post-pandemic reopening in four days, according to its Facebook page.