The cause of the explosion was unclear, officials said, but preliminary investigation pointed to a gas leak.
“It wasn’t a bomb or an attack,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel said. “It’s an unfortunate accident.”
The hotel was preparing to reopen on Tuesday after closing two years ago during the coronavirus pandemic, it said in an April 28 Facebook post, the most recent on its page. Havana Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata said the hotel was undergoing repairs and there were no tourists inside, according to the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
Videos and images on social media showed the facade of the hotel blasted away, smoke filling the air and crowds gathering in the street outside. A photo published by the news agency Reuters showed at least one body in the street outside the hotel covered with a sheet.
David Duque, a 30-year-old travel blogger, was about to start a photo shoot about five blocks from the Hotel Saratoga when he felt the city rumble and heard the roaring thunder of the blast.
“We thought it was a bomb or an attack,” Duque said. “I was so nervous that my legs were shaking. I didn’t know what to do. … In Cuba, we’ve never felt something like this.”
He rushed to the hotel and found a scene of chaos and confusion. He saw the bloodied faces of elderly people who had been passing by the hotel or on nearby buses at the time of the blast. He saw uniformed hotel workers standing on what was left of the upper floors of the building and screaming for help. He saw children running and others helping pull people out of the rubble.
“I felt paralyzed,” he said. “We were scared to get too close. We didn’t know what could happen next.”
A tweet from the presidency showed an injured child in a hospital bed, a patch over one eye, as Díaz-Canel visited with patients. A school is located in front of the hotel. All of its students were evacuated safely, Cuban officials said.
The Saratoga, which was built in the 1930s and renovated in 2005, has 96 rooms, two bars, two restaurants, a spa, and a rooftop pool with panoramic view of the Cuban capital, according to its website. Guests have reportedly included Beyoncé and Madonna.
Cuba is trying to revive the key tourism sector, which has been crippled by the pandemic and travel restrictions imposed by the Trump administration and maintained by the Biden administration.
As tourism plummeted, Russians helped to fill the gap, making up 40 percent of arrivals in Cuba last year, according to government figures cited by Reuters. But as Russia invaded Ukraine, thousands of Russians in Cuba rushed to find flights home.
Before Friday’s blast, Cuban leaders had been attending an annual tourism fair this week in the beach town of Varadero.
Cuba’s economy has struggled to recover from the pandemic, U.S. sanctions and the collapse of Cuba’s once oil-rich patron, Venezuela. The failing economy, food shortages and blackouts last year prompted Cubans to take to the streets in the country’s largest protests in decades.
Duque, the travel blogger, lives outside of Havana but goes into the city almost every day to take photos promoting its architecture. By Friday afternoon, he was still shaken by the scene at the hotel, which he described as an iconic piece of Cuban heritage.
He hoped the hotel wouldn’t need to be demolished. “It would be a great loss,” he said.