MEXICO CITY — A powerful explosion rocked central Havana on Friday morning, according to officials and news reports, killing at least four people, destroying parts of a luxury hotel and damaging nearby buildings just yards from the Cuban capitol.
The overall number of casualties was not immediately clear, but videos and photos shared on social media showed ambulances rushing to the scene and much of the facade of the Saratoga Hotel destroyed, with rubble piled on the street and smoke billowing into the sky.
“There are a lot of people injured here,” said Facebook user Ángel Cuza in a video recorded at the scene showing the mangled remains of the hotel and a crowd of onlookers. He said people were trapped under the rubble.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel arrived at the scene shortly after the explosion, along with Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz.
The office of the Cuban presidency said on Twitter that “preliminary investigations indicate that the explosion was caused by a gas leak.”
“So far, the death of four people has been confirmed,” the president’s office said. “Search and rescue work continues at the hotel, where people may still be trapped.” At least 13 people were missing, the president’s office said.
Among the buildings damaged, according to local media reports, was a nearby school, with some children reportedly injured by the blast. State media reported that children were evacuated to the Capitol in the wake of the blast.
The Cuban Communist Party newspaper, Granma, said on Twitter that the explosion occurred “while liquefied gas was presumably being moved from a truck.”
The explosion comes just as Cuba’s all-important tourism sector was beginning to bounce back after being hard hit during the coronavirus pandemic. The island nation had been shut off to visitors for months, plunging Cuba into one of its worst economic crises in history.
The disappearance of tourists deprived Cuba of vital foreign currency that it is heavily dependent on, exacerbating the financial challenges caused by the decades-long U.S. embargo.
The economic crisis set off one of the largest protest movements in Cuban history, with thousands of people taking to the streets in cities across the country. A subsequent government crackdown has led to the jailing of dozens of people for crimes, including sedition.
The explosion occurred while Cuba was hosting an international tourism fair in the nearby resort town of Varadero.