A deadly explosion erupted on Friday at a famous hotel in central Havana, tearing apart a surface near the building, killing at least 18 people and injuring more than 70, witnesses and state media reported.
Speaking on the scene on Cuban television, President Miguel Diaz-Canel said that the explosion at the historic luxury hotel in Saratoga, apparently, was caused by a gas leak.
“It was by no means a bomb or an attack,” he later told Reuters, leaving the capital’s Calixtus Garcia hospital, where many of the wounded were being treated. “It’s just a very annoying case.”
However, the blast caused a brief wave of panic in Havana’s historic old quarter, which gradually began to open up to tourists after the pandemic hit a key sector of travel in the Caribbean.
Hundreds of Cubans and tourists gathered near the hotel under the hot sun as police cordoned off the area around the hotel.
Many speculated about the cause of the blast when ambulances and rescuers took the victims out from under the rubble.
The blast erupted at a nearby school with more than 300 students, health officials said.
According to the health ministry, as of late Friday night, at least 15 children were injured and one child died.
Cuban Tourism Minister Juan Carlos Garcia said the blast did not kill or injure foreigners.
The hotel, housed in the building for more than a century, was closed and only workers were inside at the time of the blast, state television reported, citing Roberto Enrique Calzadil, a spokesman for the military company that runs many hotels in the country.
In an interview on the air, Calzadil said that the 96-room hotel was to reopen in the next few days and that workers on site are making final preparations.
He also said the cause was a gas leak.
“The workers … were doing repairs and all the work to open the property, and in the morning they replenished the gas supply, and it looks like the explosion caused some accident,” he said.
The blast engulfed the building and surrounding streets with clubs of black smoke and dust rising from under the rubble.
Police and rescuers quickly cordoned off some nearby government buildings, including the historic Capitol, or capital building.
The photo from the scene shows at least one body with a white cloth.
A block from the blast, a man took a woman screaming in pain to a clinic when people asked for information about loved ones.
The neoclassical Saratoga Hotel was renovated by a British company after the fall of the Soviet Union and has for many years been considered a stopover for visiting government officials and celebrities.
It recently lost some of its luster with the opening of new hotels in Havana, but was still a five-star resort