At first, there was an explosion. The six-storey Hotel Saratoga in Old Havana vibrated, and a few wires snapped with the force of whiplash. Immediately afterwards, more than half of the facade collapsed without any warning, with each floor swallowing the one above.
A cloud of dust hid everything except the desperate screams of people. It seemed as if the ground had swallowed up two other buildings that collapsed nearby. The explosion caused 43 deaths, and injured around 100 people.
The cause of the incident on May 6 was a gas leak from a tanker truck servicing the hotel building, however the investigation is still ongoing.
Hotel Saratoga was set to reopen during the second week of May. With no guests, the rooms were locked tight, and a simple click of a light switch would have been enough for the mass of accumulated gas to cause the shock wave that shattered the glass, marquetry and ornately decorated facade of green and white stucco, which was originally from the 19th century.
It is not the first time that Cuba has experienced tragedy. An accident like this might seem minor in a country that has suffered more than thirty major hurricanes in half a century, dozens of deaths during the CIA sabotage of the steamship La Coubre in the port of Havana in 1960, the blowing up of a commercial airliner with 73 passengers in 1976, and a chain of bombs in hotels and restaurants in the 1990s.
Cuba has also suffered the eternal blockade imposed by the United States government — a “rogue action” as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador calls it — that has naturalised the shortage of almost everything and made the pandemic more desperate, just to cite a few dramatic examples.
But the accident at Hotel Saratoga is something else, and not only because the explosion was felt throughout Havana and dense smoke could be seen overhead, causing a widespread feeling of vulnerability. The incident is significant because of the solidarity of the citizens who crowded around the area to rescue victims from the rubble, and donated their blood or helped alleviate the anguish of the victims.
Two hours after the accident, the line of volunteers in front of blood banks, polyclinics and hospitals exceeded thousands. Most were young people — the very demographic Miami’s propaganda claims are leaving Cuba en masse.
While the government acts and the public press teaches immediacy and sensitivity, people from the streets, from all kinds of professions, continue to help their compatriots.
We do not know the names of all those who were part of the rescue teams. We know that many are volunteer firefighters, or teachers at the “Concepción Arenal” school next door to the hotel. Rescuers also included children, and passersby who helped the Saratoga workers and the families residing in the other two buildings that imploded. Sniffer dogs are still looking for the traces of at least two missing persons in the rubble.
The crashing buildings reminded us of our fragility. But the tragedy also brought out the best in human decency and solidarity in the heroic actions of those who went out to save others, realising that another explosion and another collapse could have made them victims too. Meanwhile, an anonymous army of health workers have not rested for more than 100 hours since the accident.
In Soldiers of Salamis, Spanish novelist Javier Cercas reminds us that “in the behaviour of a hero there is almost always something blind, irrational, instinctive, something that is in their nature and from which they cannot escape.” They are the ones who look squarely at the absurdity and cruelty of life to make us more human, and they are the ones who teach us that struggle is born from despair.