Huge explosion at Havana hotel kills at least 26

Many are believed to still be missing under the rubble of the shattered building. Credit: AP

A powerful explosion that ripped through a historic hotel in Cuba's capital has killed at least 26 people, including a child, and injured more than 70, said officials.

Relatives of the missing in Havana are desperately searching for survivors from the blast at one of the city's most luxurious hotels.

A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of Friday’s blast at the 96-room hotel. The 19th-century structure in the city’s Old Havana neighbourhood did not have any guests at the time because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a planned Tuesday reopening.

Rescuers worked through the night searching rubble in a desperate bid to find the missing.

A Ministry of Health official said at least 74 people have been injured. Among them were 14 children, according to a tweet from President Miguel Díaz-Canel's office.

“It's not a bomb or an attack. It is a tragic accident,” tweeted the president, who visited the site.

Rescuers worked through the night to clear the rubble. Credit: AP

Cuba’s national health minister, José Ángel Portal, warned the number of injured could rise, as rescuers continue to search for what the fire brigade say is a large group of people who may still be under the rubble.

Authorities refused to release the names of the dead, even to their relatives, many of whom remained at the site and outside hospitals last on Friday night waiting for news.

Videos show how the blast sent smoke billowing into the air around the hotel with people on the street staring in awe, while cars honked their horns as they sped away from the scene.

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Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was walking past the hotel when “the explosion threw me to the ground."

"My head still hurts.... Everything was very fast,” he said.

Worried relatives of hotel employees showed up at a hospital treating victims. 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.

At least 22 have been killed in the blast. Credit: AP

The first floors of the shattered hotel appeared to have suffered most of the damage, with walls blown out leaving the destroyed interiors of many rooms exposed.

The site remained cordoned off as workers operated heavy machinery to lift huge pieces of wall and masonry and trucks left the site loaded with rubble, as many anxiously awaited on the side lines for news of their missing loved ones.

“I don’t want to move from here,” said Cristina Avellar who was waiting for news of Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier who has worked at the hotel for five years. She is the godmother of Barrera’s daughters and considers her like a sister.

Havana Governor Reinaldo García Zapata said structures adjacent to the hotel were being evaluated, including two badly damaged apartment buildings.

Cuba's president called it a 'tragedy'. Credit: AP

Five students at a 300-strong school next to the hotel suffered minor injuries, while Cuba’s Capitol building, which is about 110 yards from the emblematic hotel, also had broken glass and damaged masonry after the explosion.

The president said families in affected buildings had been transferred to safer locations.

In the past, Hotel Saratoga has been used by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking US government delegations, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.

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.

The company said it was investigating the cause of the blast.