Observing the remains of the Saratoga Hotel and its adjoining buildings is overwhelming. More than 100 hours after the explosion, even though part of the rubble had already been removed and the lifeless bodies of more than 40 victims had been recovered, the view of the collapsed buildings, of the cracked or missing walls, turned into a ruinous mess, in stones and dust, by the fierce bite of the shock wave.
Looking closely at the scene of the explosion, at least as close as the authorities allow the press for safety reasons — behind the last of the several yellow tapes that surround the area —, squeezes all emotions into a fist: shock, astonishment, anguish, pain.… It is hard to imagine the terrible dimensions of an event capable of causing so much destruction, so much sadness; of knocking down walls and ending so many lives in just a second, and, at the same time, it is impressive to see, from a distance, among the ruins and the work that is being done there, doors and stairs, furniture and mirrors, apparently intact, as if what happened there was something alien, distant, macabre news from another place and not from right there, or right next door, where a closet still protects some belongings, in the midst of the destruction that surrounds it.
In the surrounding area, at the same time, activity and expectation have reigned for days. Teams of rescuers entering and leaving the scene of the accident, excavators and trucks removing debris, military chiefs and authorities constantly touring the site, ambulances and other vehicles parked in the area, including the mobile command post, from where the operations were directed.
It was just a few meters from there that Colonel Luis Carlos Guzman, head of the Cuban Fire Brigade, confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that the forces under his command had had access to all the hotel premises, where they were still “digging deep”, and that the search and rescue work was continuing as the only “priority” and for as long as necessary until all the missing were found. This Thursday (12), with the rescue of all the victims reported missing, the search was finally concluded.
Outside the area that has been closed, which extends to the National Capitol building and encompasses the vicinity of all the buildings damaged by the explosion — and where, to enter, it is necessary to be authorized —, life tries to continue normally, although it is not possible. Because it is not possible. The people passing by, looking for the place where the bus stops have been temporarily relocated, seeking shelter from the sun in a doorway or under a tree, or even standing in line, look into the distance, with a tight chest, towards where only a few days ago the Saratoga rose intact. Nobody can avoid looking there, even for a minute. No one escapes, one way or another, from the overwhelming weight of tragedy.
Inside, waves of dust cloud the air, propelling a dense, earthy layer that stings the eyes and throat, while the machines and men go about their work, and groups of rescue workers snack and rest in the surroundings, in tents set up for it, or on the lawn of the Parque de la Fraternidad itself ― almost completely closed to the population ―, and where the dogs of the canine technique, that have worked day and night together with their instructors, also wait for their turn, and where the relatives of the people who have not yet been found stand firm, afflicted and, at the same time, hopeful,. Nearby, in buildings included in the restricted zone and that were not evacuated after the disaster, some neighbors lean out on the balcony and a poster embraces the pain of the families of the victims. Which could have been theirs.
With the traces of accumulated fatigue on their faces, but with the aim of “continuing to the end,” Yarcare Grosso, Yunior Toledano and Luis Orlando Rodríguez took a break during the work to speak with OnCuba. They are members of the Cuban Red Cross and have been at the Saratoga since Friday (6) when the incident ― which, according to preliminary investigations, was caused by a gas leak while a tanker truck was supplying the hotel ― mobilized all available forces in an emergency. They are part of the hundred volunteers from that non-governmental organization who have worked in the place since then, and they do not hide that in all these days they have been able to sleep “very few hours.”
Their work, they told me, was in close coordination with the Fire Department and other specialized entities and, in their specific case, it has been organized by groups and with rotations that guarantee rest and the necessary recovery to face a new shift. Thus, they have carried out scavenging and search and localization of the victims, and have also ensured the safety of the site and their colleagues. The groups, explained Toledano, who leaded one of them, were organized according to the potential and experience of their members, and specialized Red Cross personnel from different levels and territories joined them, “in order to strengthen the teams and have greater operability in the field.”
Although they already had experience in other catastrophic events, such as the plane crash in Havana in May 2018 and the tornado that affected the capital itself in January of the following year, the three recognize the impact and intensity of the work carried out on this occasion. However, they assure that, thanks to their systematic training, the security protocols they must comply with, and the psychological care they receive on the ground, they can face this task. They are also grateful for having had the support of neighbors and “people from outside” who have brought them water, coffee, and other products, and with that of the Inglaterra and Parque Central hotels, which allocated a space for them “to be able to bathe, take off the dust, the earth, because we are working among the rubble and we get very dirty.”
Regarding their work, they confirmed that the shifts “have been very close and very intense, and that has made it difficult to sleep. But, even so, when we leave the scene we have to rest compulsorily, because we must comply with the action protocol.” “When we enter again we have to be fresh, physically and mentally prepared,” Toledano specifies, “and, therefore, whoever does not feel fit, has to be relieved by a teammate. One cannot enter the scene with symptoms of fatigue or with any discomfort, because one could become another victim, and we try by all means that this does not happen.”
The possibility of it happening, however, exists. And this is well known — and feared — by the families of the rescuers, even though they are used to their being involved in risky search and rescue actions. “Although they know that we work with safety measures and that we are prepared for this job, they always worry and are attentive all the time, especially our mothers, with whom this time we could not be with this Sunday,” confirmed Luis Orlando, who is just 25 years old. For his part, Yarcare, more experienced and who directs the Red Cross operations group in Old Havana, notes that “the family never gets completely used” to this work. “One, due to one’s training and experience, can assimilate it, but my mother, no, and that’s why she has kept calling me several times a day, to find out how I am, how I feel, to insist that I take care of myself.”
“We focus on everything being done as it should be, even though we are working on a surface that is quite abrupt and many times we do not have stability. That makes the work complex and that is why we must take all the necessary safety measures to avoid an accident. We cannot let our guard down: we have to stay focused to avoid any situation that endangers our lives and makes our families suffer,” added Toledano, “and so that, with our work, those other mothers who wait for news of their missing relatives have that consolation.”
Talking with the protagonists of these days at the Saratoga is not easy. It entails changing their dynamics and routines, governed by action protocols for disaster situations, and also having “higher” authorizations, which can be delayed as events advance. After several days of uninterrupted attention and with so many sources of information, formal and informal, aware of what is happening in the place, it is not difficult for rumors to spread, that alleged news to leak, false expectations to be generated and assessments to be disclosed that do not have all the necessary support, beyond their good or bad intentions. So many, among the forces that are still working, have preferred to avoid misunderstandings and responsibilities, and concentrate on what, quite logically, they consider most important: their work.
With the Red Cross, however, we had no problem, and the experiences and explanations of its members interviewed by OnCuba were also colored by the emotion and humanism of the circumstances. And although with others we did not suffer the same fate ― in some cases understandably, as with regard to psychological care for the families of the victims, which is carried out in the Palacio Central de Computación and whose work and details were kept “behind closed doors” ―, the general impression among those who continued to work more than 100 hours after the tragedy seemed to confirm the discourse of their bosses and other authorities: do not stop until the last missing person is found, in order to then be able to move on to deeper studies of the affected structures and other recovery efforts.
This was also the will expressed to OnCuba by directors of the Integrated System of Medical Emergencies (SIUM), who specified that, although they do not participate directly in the rescue work, their forces and vehicles continue in the area of the incident “attentive to when our work is required, to care for someone and save lives.”
“When this type of situation occurs, a contingency protocol is activated, which is what we and the rest of the institutions that participate in these tasks follow,” explained Nairovis Évora Fumero, director of the central region’ SIUM. “This protocol is followed until the end, until the situation that caused its activation is maintained. For this reason, at the Saratoga scene we maintain an Advanced Medical Post (PMA), an intensive cart, a basic mobile and a micro, which is to transport people seated, and our staff is ready for whatever is needed.”
For his part, Miguel Ramírez, head teacher of the provincial SIUM, explained that after what happened on the first day, when all the forces of his entity went to the scene of the disaster to provide emergency coverage to the victims, the dynamics of his work has been adapted, following the protocols, to the requirements of each moment.
“After that first day, which was very complex and in which we worked with a lot of intensity, we have stayed here, but the dynamics are different,” he commented. “With the passing of days, the work of the rescuers has been concentrated in the search for missing persons, and it is not a secret that unfortunately the bodies of people who have already died have been found, and so our cars have also been supporting the transfer of these bodies to Legal Medicine, for their identification.”
However, as confirmed by Ramírez, “our main objective at the moment is the care of the personnel who are still working, of the rescuers, in case there is any situation — a wound, an injury, a fall — that requires immediate medical attention to these personnel, and we also remain on the lookout in case a victim is found alive who needs urgent attention at the scene. In addition, we stay in communication with the Coordinating Center for Medical Emergencies, which is our governing center, in the event of an unforeseen situation, a collapsed building, an accident, God forbid, so that, if it happens, our forces and cars immediately are put in place to provide the necessary emergency medical coverage for this type of situation.”
Although the search work has been completed, tensions, will and mixed emotions are still settling in. The official death toll from the tragic explosion stands at 45, once all those reported missing have been found, as of this writing. But beyond these sad figures, the Saratoga wounds will take time to heal. Not only in the families of the victims, in the survivors, in the hotel itself and its surroundings, but in the whole city, in all of Cuba, which remains dismayed, overwhelmed by the absurdity of the explosion, by so much pain.