At least 22 people have been killed and more than 70 injured after a large explosion ripped through a historic hotel in Havana, the Cuban government has said.
In a series of tweets on Friday afternoon, President Miguel Diaz-Canel’s office said preliminary investigations indicated that the explosion at the five-star Hotel Saratoga in Old Havana was caused by a gas leak.
“In no case was it a bomb or an attack,” he told Reuters news agency as he left the capital’s Calixto Garcia hospital, where many of the injured were treated. ‘It’s just a very unfortunate accident.”
Diaz-Canel, who also visited the site of the explosion, extended his “deepest condolences” to the victims’ loved ones.
The hotel’s first four floors were gutted in the late-morning explosion that sent a cloud of dust and smoke billowing into the air. It tore off large parts of the facade, blew out windows and destroyed cars parked outside the hotel, while the dome of a nearby Baptist church also collapsed.
The 96-room hotel, which has two bars, two restaurants and a rooftop pool, according to its website, was under renovation.
While there were no guests, workers were preparing for the hotel’s reopening in four days time.
“The workers were … making repairs and doing all the work to open the property and in the morning they were resupplying the gas and it seems some accident caused an explosion,” Roberto Enrique Calzadilla, a representative of the military-run company that operates many of the country’s hotels was reported as saying on state television.
The hotel was remodelled by a British company after the fall of the Soviet Union and was considered the place to go for visiting government officials and celebrities for many years.
Jazz Martinez-Gamboa, a theatre director, told Al Jazeera he narrowly avoided the blast area.
“I was just about to cross the street and got a phone call. Luckily, I stopped for a few seconds. When I began crossing again there was a huge explosion and the building began collapsing from what seemed like the second floor,” he said.
“People were all along the street waiting for taxis. They started to scream and everyone began to run.”
Anabel Regueiferas Granados was teaching a class of primary school children at Concepcion Arenal de Ponte, which stands opposite the hotel, when the explosion occurred.
“It was horrible,” she told Al Jazeera as she recovered in Havana’s nearby Central Park.
“I would never want to go through that again. I have a pain in my arm and I think it was because when it was over, I stretched out my arm to get all the children out.”
Another teacher, Martha Borrell Zamora, was teaching mathematics to 20 students when the explosion shattered the classroom’s windows, causing a large piece of plaster to fall on her desk and the blackboard to bulge out towards her.
She said some children suffered small cuts from the glass but were otherwise unhurt.
“We heard two explosions, the first stronger than the second. Since I arrived early in the morning I had smelled gas,” Borrell Zamora told Al Jazeera. “The glass was flying and the children were very scared.”
Ruaridh Nicoll contributed reporting from Havana.