Saratoga Explosion: Stories of Pain and Hope

Rescue workers continue to comb through the rubble for signs of life (Photo:  Bill Hackwell)

Havana — It is Mother’s Day in Cuba, but in Havana there is no music or merriment as usually happens on this date. The city has been in mourning since Friday, when a massive explosion shook the Saratoga Hotel, in Old Havana, collapsing part of its facade and spreading terror among neighbors in the surrounding communities.

The images of the catastrophe hurt: the smoke, the destruction, the fear. The whole city is in shock and follows the news closely with the hope of not recognizing any victim from the list of deceased people, which grows every day and has already reached 30 names.

More than 42 hours after the disaster, firefighters and rescuers continue searching for missing persons while removing tons of debris in the vicinity of the hotel, placed nearby Havana’s Capitol.

The search is a slow process. It is necessary to go little by little, stone by stone, to avoid the collapse of the structures. But there are still relatives and friends of nearby neighbors missing, and authorities will not rest until they are sure that there’s no one left in the Saratoga wreckage.

The grief is shared. The suffering of others is felt as our own. We all saw with a lump in our throats the image of a fireman who could not bear the pain and had to kneel down to cry amidst so much horror. It shows us that even the bravest, the ones who save lives, also break down, cry, and need to take a deep breath.

He got up afterwards, supported by his comrades, and went on with more strength, but he had to cry to release that deep weight he felt.

All Havana also follows closely the story of a young man, a medical student, son of the Saratoga storekeeper. Since May 6, he has been sitting in front of the hotel without moving anywhere, not even to get some sleep. He is also a hero and does not lose hope of finding his father alive.

His dad enters the hotel every day at the same time, very early in the morning. He works in the basement because that’s where his storeroom is. “I know he’s in there. That’s why I don’t move from here, because I hope to hug him one more time,” he told a reporter.

But there are stories that give hope amid the pain, like that about the feat of the Cuban doctors who saved from the death a two-year-old boy who got injured during the explosion. They managed to extract a splinter of wood that had almost completely penetrated his skull.

“The wood splinter was about a quarter of the way in maybe a little less, but only a few centimeters were visible outside the skull. The rest had penetrated the baby’s head. Now he is awake and with no signs of brain damage,” said Dr. Marlon Ortiz Machín, a neurosurgery specialist at the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital.

Today, ten other children injured by the explosion, were discharged from the Juan Manuel Márquez pediatric hospital in the capital.

This Sunday, it was also reported that two puppies, Sultan and Chuza, were rescued alive from the rubble and are now receiving veterinary attention. Although they are not physically injured, they are very nervous and scared. An animal protection team has already reached the scene to take care of them.

We are alive! Repeat it over and over again was the exclamation of the 70 people evacuated from the buildings next to the Saratoga hotel, which are in danger of collapse due to the explosion. They were taken to another small hotel nearby and will remain there until their homes are repaired with the local government’s resources.

“We couldn’t take anything of value, more than a couple of items of clothing. Everything stayed there. But I am thankful that my daughter, my mother, and I were able to survive this tragic accident. We are alive thanks to the quick action of the authorities,” said Sila Suarez, a neighbor of 508 Zulueta Street, a few meters from the Saratoga.

Meanwhile, Manuel Beber, the head of the construction team in charge of repairing the Dona Concepcion elementary school that was severely damaged by the explosion, assured that by May 28 it will be ready to receive students once again.

The headquarters of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in Havana was closed today but that did not stop an unsolicited steady stream of people who brought by donations of usable items for the people who have been displaced by the explosion.

Little by little, Havana will resume its daily tranquility, although the pain of the deaths will remain intact. But hopeful stories will also prevail, as well as the tranquility that Cubans are not alone, because their leaders are always in the front line. We won’t forget the courage of the rescuers and of ordinary citizens, who were the first heroes, the first ones to start saving lives from the rubble. This wound will heal.

• First published at Resumen Latinoamericano (English)

Alejandra Garcia is a Cuban journalist who writes for Resumen Latinoamericano (English). Read other articles by Alejandra.