At least eight people have died and 30 are hospitalised after a powerful explosion at Hotel Saratoga in Havana, Cuba on Friday morning. An appeal for blood donors was immediately answered to help the injured survivors.
Police and fire rescuers are combing through rubble for survivors after the explosion destroyed the famous hotel, right beside the Capitol. Any Cayman Islands residents who have visited Havana is likely to have passed Hotel Saratoga which is right in the heart of Havana.
A gas leak is thought to be the cause of the explosion, according to the Cuban Presidential Office. Havana governor, Reinaldo Garcia Zapata, said the hotel was in the process of renovations and no tourists were staying there, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported.
Photos from the scene show severe damage to the multi-storey hotel, with much of the walls blown away exposing interior rooms and clouds of dust billowing into the sky.
Yazira de la Caridad, said the explosion shook her home a block from the hotel. "The whole building moved. I thought it was an earthquake. I've still got my heart in my hand," the mother-of-two said.
Police cordoned off the area as firefighters and ambulance crews worked inside and a school next door was evacuated.
The 96-room four-star hotel is located in the historic centre of Old Havana and was remodelled by a British company after the fall of the Soviet Union.
It had become a popular venue for visiting government officials and celebrities and contains bars, restaurants, a spa, gym and rooftop pool.
Hotel Saratoga was built at the end of the 19th century and, by the 1930s, it was one of the most important hotels of the city.
The building, according to the historian Carlos Venegas, had been designed to be warehouses, homes and guest houses. It was ordered to be built by the Spanish merchant Gregorio Palacios.
"Gregorio Palacios, a native of Santander, was one of the richest urban owners in Havana and one of the largest contributors to the treasury," Venegas said. In 1879 he signed the contract for the construction of the building.
The Hotel Saratoga, which was previously located on the street Monte, was moved to this building on street Prado around 1933.
The hotel's façade has retained some of the original features. Elements of the building such as bars, wooden lattices, marble stairs and columns show how it was originally, despite the great changes that have occurred inside.
One of the curiosities highlighted by the hotel, which by 1935 was already listed in tourist guides as one of the most prominent in the Cuban capital, is part of the history of the Anacaonas, which was the first orchestra made up entirely of women in the country.
The musical shows on the terrace attracted huge crowds to the surroundings of the building in the first part of the 20th century and it was precisely in that corner where the orchestra began.
Celebrities such as the writer Rafael Alberti have passed through Hotel Saratoga, whose visit is framed in a commemorative plaque of the building, which was reopened as a hotel in 2005.
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