A powerful explosion damaged a hotel in the Cuban capital late Friday morning (Saturday morning AEST) killing at least eight people and injuring 40.
Police and fire rescuers in Havana are now combing through rubble in the centre of the city, looking for people who are possibly trapped.
Witnesses described a “massive blast”, which appeared to destroy buses and cars outside Hotel Saratoga, a 19th century structure in Old Havana.
The blast that ripped away large sections of the outer wall at the Hotel Saratoga is thought to be due to a gas leak, according to the Cuban Presidential Office.
“Everything indicates that the explosion was caused by an accident,” the Cuban Presidential Office said in a tweet, adding that at least 30 people have been hospitalized after Friday’s blast.
Cuban President President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the site of the explosion on Friday and Hermanos Ameijeras hospital, where a number of victims were sent to, according to images shared by the Presidential Office on Twitter.
“It has not been a bomb or an attack. It is a tragic accident,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who visited the site, said in a tweet.
No tourists were staying at the 96-room Hotel Saratoga because it was undergoing renovations, Havana Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata told the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
The blast happened as Cuba is struggling to revive its key tourism sector that was devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and is being negatively impacted by the war in Ukraine.
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.
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 between the debris.
Images from the scene showed the blown-out facade of at least three floors of the ornate green-and-white stuccoed building.
Plumes of dust and smoke could be seen rising around debris on the ground.
Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and ambulance crews worked inside.
Photographer Michel Figueroa said he had been walking past the hotel when “the explosion threw me to the ground, and my head still hurts…. Everything was very fast.”
Yazira de la Caridad, mother of two, said 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.”
Mayiee Pérez said she had rushed to the scene after receiving a call from her husband, Daniel Serra, who works at a foreign exchange shop inside the hotel. She said he told her, “I am fine, I am fine. They got us out,” but had been unable to reach him since.
Mexico’s foreign minister tweeted his solidarity with explosion’s victims. “Our solidarity to the victims and those affected as well as the people of that dear fraternal nation,” Marcelo Ebrard said in a tweet.
The five-star hotel in Old Havana has two bars, two restaurants and a rooftop pool.