In Cuba, all systems mobilized
Unity of action following accidental explosion in historic Havana hotel
On the morning of May 6, at approximately 11:00 a.m., an explosion destroyed a great part of the Hotel Saratoga. Preliminary investigations indicate that the accidental explosion was caused by escaping gas.
The Cuba-Petroleum Union (Cupet) reported that one of its gas liquid trucks was delivering reserves of liquid gas to the hotel at the time of the explosion. The equipment had been verified as having the technical conditions necessary for operation, in accordance with established procedures. Cupet immediately created a commission to investigate the causes of the accident.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel arrived immediately to the area. He announced on Twitter: “It was not bomb or a terrorist attack, as already had been announced in some international media in a perverse and confusing manner. It simply has been a lamentable, very lamentable, accident, apparently caused by an escape of gas.”
Díaz-Canel and the Cuban people have reason to be aware of the possibility of a terrorist attack. Cuba has been targeted by the USA since 2019 in the unconventional war launched by the northern nation against several anti-imperialist nations, beginning in 2014. Moreover, as the Cuban newspaper Granma noted on May 6, Cuba previously has suffered from countless terrorist acts coming from the United States, with the intention of undermining the Cuban economy and isolating the Caribbean nation from the world. For example, in July 1997, there were explosions in the Hotel Capri and the Hotel Nacional, in which three persons were injured. In September of that year, there were explosions in the Chateau Miramar and Copacabana hotels as well as the Neptuno-Tritón hotel complex. In the Copacabana explosion, the Italian youth Fabio di Celmo was killed.
But in the event of May 6, preliminary investigation indicates that the explosion was an accident. Reacting quickly, a number of prominent officials of the Cuban national government and the government of the City of Havana were present on the afternoon of the event, as were leading members of the Party. The Minister of Health, José Angel Portal Miranda, toured health centers of the capital, ensuring that all the material and human resources necessary for attention to the injured were available. All emergency medical units in the City of Havana were activated.
In his Twitter account on May 7, Díaz-Canel expressed appreciation for the rapid mobilization of rescue and life-saving efforts of the people and the institutions.
At a press conference on May 6, Roberto Enríquez Calzadilla, a spokesperson of the tourist group Gaviota, reported that at the moment of the incident, the hotel was not open to the public, having been closed temporarily due to Covid-19. However, the hotel was preparing for a May 10 reopening. Therefore, fifty-one hotel workers were present in the hotel, as well as two workers contracted for restauration work. Eleven of the workers had been killed, thirteen were missing, six were hospitalized, and the rest had escaped, with light injuries in some cases.
A Spanish tourist of 29 years of age was killed in the explosion, and arrangements are being made for the repatriation of her body during this week. Her partner remains in serious condition in a hospital in Havana, following immediate surgical intervention. The couple had been vacationing in Havana; they were by chance outside the Hotel Saratoga when the explosion occurred. On May 8, the King and Queen of Spain sent a message of solidarity to the Cuban families of the victims and to the Cuban people, and they expressed hope for the recovery of the injured. The previous day, Spanish President Pedro Sánchez published on Twitter a message of affection and support for Cuban people.
As of May 10, the Cuban Ministry of Health reported a total of forty-two deaths. Three workers remain missing, and the search for them in the rubble continues. A total of ninety-six persons had been injured, with seventeen remaining hospitalized. Seven hospitals have provided treatment to the injured persons.
Services to the effected population
Díaz-Canel announced in his Twitter account priorities of the emergency work: attention to the families members of deceased and hospitalized persons; attention to those whose housing had been damaged; continuation of the search for missing persons in the rubble; continued investigation of the causes of the accident; security protection of the homes of those that had been relocated temporality; elaboration of plans of work for the recuperation of the hotel and other buildings; and guaranteeing temporary classroom locations for the children of a nearby primary school.
Two command posts near the event were immediately set up, with telecommunication services to support the civil defense workers and firefighters and to facilitate communication with the press, the government, and the population in general.
On May 7, the families of fourteen disappeared persons were translated to a computer youth club, where they would be given permanent information on the rescue operations. Services of psychologists and other specialists as well as transportation services were being provided.
Searching for survivals has proceeded methodically, as specialists move with caution to avoid a collapse of structures, and there is the constant danger of a pocket of gas trapped in the rubble. Lieutenant Coronel Guillermo Sánchez Dorea, head of the national firefighters’ organization, affirmed that the rescue is being carried out in an uninterrupted manner, with the work divided by shifts. He reported that drones were used to verify that no persons remained on the upper floors. So far, only bodies have been found in the rubble, not persons with life, although two dogs were found alive and uninjured. The search for possible survivors continues ninety hours after the event.
Twenty-three nearby buildings were affected, seventeen of them residential buildings, with structural damage in two of them. Reinaldo García Zapata, governor of the Province of the City of Havana, reported that the residents of the zone were immediately evacuated, as a temporary emergency measure. Twenty-two families (sixty-six persons) whose housing units suffered structural damage were relocated to an apartment-hotel complex in the Pan-American Villa of East Havana; others in damaged buildings found lodging with families or friends. Their needs are being attended by Luis Carlos Góngora Domínguez, Coordinator of the provincial government of Havana.
Alexis Acosta Silva, mayor of La Habana Vieja, informed the press that all the children of the Concepcion Arenal Primary School, which has 393 pupils, were evacuated. None of the children suffered serious damage, although five had minor injuries. Psychological services were being provided to the children. Arrangements were made for alternative classrooms in four nearby educational institutions, and the classes in their temporary facilities were initiated on Monday. Restauration of the school building should be completed by the end of May.
The Hotel Saratoga
The hotel building was initially constructed in 1879 and 1880 by the Spanish merchant Gregorio Palacios, one of the richest owners of housing properties in Havana. It was a multipurpose building, with a store and tobacco warehouse on the first floor; four residential apartments on the first two floors; and forty-three guest rooms and a living room-dining room on the third floor.
In 1933, the Hotel Saratoga relocated from its previous location on Monte Street, occupying the Palacios building. The hotel remodeling of the building preserved its multiple functions, including apartment units, stores, and guest rooms. By 1935, it had become one of the most important hotels of Havana, known for open-air musical functions, in which appeared the most celebrated Cuban musicians, bands, and orchestras. It is believed that the Hotel Saratoga originally took its name from the resort town of the same name in the U.S. state of New York.
In the 1960s, with the changed character of international tourism in Havana, and with a desperate shortage of low-income housing, the revolutionary government nationalized the building, converting it into a residential building. Subsequently, multiple and indiscriminate subdivisions led to deterioration and eventually abandonment of the building, for its deplorable state, prompting the revolutionary government to reconstruct the hotel for the renewed Havana tourism, and as part of the renovation of the area. The restored Hotel Saratoga reopened in 2005. The hotel had closed its doors during the pandemic, and it was scheduled for its next reopening on May 10. The government is today saying that the preliminary evaluation indicates that the hotel can be restored, and it will be, because of its historic value.
Cuban Minister of Tourism, Juan Carlos García Granda, declared that the accident is not likely to have repercussions for the tourist industry, because an event of this magnitude has never before occurred in the Cuban tourist industry.
Cooperation among institutions
The Cuban government and the Cuban people have responded with dignified unity in the face of tragic accident. Cooperation between the press and the government especially has been noteworthy, as the press has played a positive role in helping the government to communicate what is happening to the people.
Cuba shows the way. State investment in institutions necessary for response to emergency situations. Cooperation among institutions in the face of national challenge and in pursuit of common national goals.
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