Because the 96-room Hotel Saratoga was undergoing repairs, Havana Governor Reinaldo Garca Zapata told the Communist Party journal Granma that no visitors were staying there.
“It wasn’t a bomb or a terrorist strike.” President Miguel Dáz-Canel, who visited the site, tweeted, “It is a horrible catastrophe.”
People on the street stared in astonishment as the bomb blew smoke into the air around the hotel, with one shouting, “Oh my God,” and cars blasting their horns as they rushed away from the sight, according to video. It happened as Cuba is struggling to revive its key tourism sector that was devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuba’s national health minister, José Ángel Portal, told The Associated Press that hospitals had received about 40 injured people, but estimated that the number could rise as the search continues for people who may be trapped in the rubble of the 19th century structure in the Old Havana neighborhood of the city.
Granma reported that local officials said 13 people were missing. An elementary school next to the hotel was evacuated and local news media said no children were hurt.
Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and rescue workers toiled inside the wreckage of the emblematic hotel about 110 yards (100 meters) from Cuba’s Capitol building.
The hotel was first renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revival of Old Havana and is owned by the Cuban military’s tourism business arm, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA.
It has been used frequently by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking U.S. government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay Z stayed at the Hotel Saratoga during a 2013 visit to Cuba.
Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was walking past the hotel when “the explosion threw me to the ground, and my head still hurts, everything was very fast.”
Worried relatives of people who had been working at the hotel showed up at a hospital in the afternoon to look for them. Among them was Beatriz Céspedes Cobas, who was tearfully searching for her sister.
“She had to work today. She is a housekeeper,” she said. “I work two blocks away. I felt the noise, and at first, I didn’t even associate” the explosion with the hotel.
The explosion happened as Cuba’s government hosted the final day of a tourism convention in the iconic beach town of Varadero aimed at drawing investors.