Field Notes from the Rescue Operations at the Saratoga Hotel

By Yaimi Ravelo on May 10, 2022

Rescue Operations at the Saratoga Hotel

Photo: Yaimi Ravelo

We are running the field notes of Resumen photojournalist Yaimi Ravelo to give a view of the dedication and commitment of the Cuban rescue workers.

I could begin by telling this as a love story. Of how time stopped in the midst of so much disaster. It would be a novel. These are my field notes of the rescue 54 hours after the accidental explosion of the Saratoga Hotel in Havana.

Sunday, May 8

15:30 – I arrive at the scene of the accident, wearing the earrings my son gave me for Mother’s Day. They get tangled with the camera strap but I had to wear them, he put them on me.

15:45 – A group of rescuers surround the ambulance, their faces are withered. They pull out a lifeless body.

16:30 – Roky the search dog runs over a mountain of rubble. He stops, sniffs. At the foot of the pile of debris is Leolvis Martinez, a Rescue and Salvage canine technician. Roky is the star, the guide of the tireless search. He has a group of rescues on vigil under the hot May sun, they trust him. Roky is certain. “Every time he marks we find a victim”, commented a rescuer. Time goes by and life becomes uncertain. Hope is not lost.

16:38 – Between beams and concrete slabs the dog wags its tail, raises its head, barks, barks again, he gets desperate, insists, barks. The big group shouts “That’s it, he’s scored!”

His companion goes to meet him, pats his furry back. He barks again, as if he were saying “this is it”. Together they go down.

16:50 – They are all assembled, Rescue and Rescue technicians, Red Cross, Firemen.

“The first work squad with shovels and picks, quickly, that’s it now!” shouts Ismael, who commands the Red Cross team.

Major Valdoquin leads the operation. He is a firefighter. He puts one of his hands on Ismael’s shoulder, advising him. Lauren Balar is among them, she also receives instructions from Valdoquin.

The men and women rescuers are like a soccer team in disasters like these, they look each other in the eye, they look after each other, and they encourage each other. It is hard to deal with misfortune, with death, and they are also in danger.

17:00 – The first group goes up, Ismael is in it, also Major Valdoquin. Lauren stays behind. She studies the beams, the unsafe columns, and all the pitfalls of what could go wrong at this moment.

They break stones, throw debris, and expend strength on the sledgehammer that shatters the concrete. They sweat, put their hands on their hips, breathe, drink water and continue.

Behind a fence I am holding my camera ready, watching everything.

17:48 – “Second group, hurry!” shouts Valdoquín. “Third group!” Everyone respects the expert, the confidence in his directions. I watch but I hardly hear. “You do this… And you do this… You want a fourth group?” he asks Lauren as if she were a daughter.

“Where are the other firefighters?” the chief said. The other firefighters arrive.

18:30 – I have been taking images for three hours, not everything I see. There is pain in the air, difficult comments for my soul to absorb. A little girl dressed as a firefighter is walking and wandering around. I wondered what she is doing here.

I took some pictures of the young firefighter and the second group of people in the rubble. The bulldozers don’t stop, the truckers don’t stop. The rescue machinery does not stop, the men and women do not rest.

I’ve only been on a fence for three hours, a couple of cameras on my shoulders and I still don’t know where they get so much strength to swing those pickaxes and shovels.

19:30 – When you’ve been with them for four hours straight, you’re almost family, they recognize you, and they talk to you. And that’s how I met Sergio, he talks to me about the Red Cross, his eyes shine.

“Can I interview you?”

He replies, “Me? Look, do the interview with Ismael,” he suggested.

“But Ismael hasn’t come down yet.”

“Well, give me a chance, I’ll drink some water and we’ll talk. My name is Sergio, I’m 28 years old, I’ve been a volunteer in the fire department for ten years and a volunteer in the Red Cross for seven years, we’re here” –

“Sergio, come on!” he is interrupted by a call.

“I’ll continue when I come down,” he smiles at me.

“Don’t worry, take care of yourself,” I replied with a smile.

20:10 – I am thirsty and they tell me where they offer cold water. Gold at this point of the day, the dust covers even my shadow.

“Mijita will you stay the night?” the driver asks me as I go to get the water.

“It depends on two guys who will give me an interview, Ismael and Sergio”.

I remember that today is Mother’s Day.

The table where the water sits is covered by a green checkered tablecloth, everything is very clean and the disposable cups are carefully taken out of a nylon bag.

Marlenis Giro Ramos hands me the cup and explains that she works in gastronomy at the PNR in Centro Habana. She lives near the Saratoga Hotel. When she heard the explosion she was taking care of her little granddaughter, she left her with a relative and came down from her building and she has not stopped helping since old Havana painted the country in mourning.

“Yesterday I was up until three in the morning handing out water to everyone who needs it, everyone passes through here. Everyone. The ones that break my heart are the relatives of the disappeared, you can recognize them instantly, their faces say it all,” she tells me. “We try to comfort them in the name of the whole city, of those who would like to hug them and tell them how sorry we are, to give them the condolences of the whole country”.

I confess that the water carrier brought tears to my eyes. I thanked her for her kindness, her testimony. She rewarded my sensitivity with a cup of coffee.

20:50 – Another group gets ready. I have been sitting for a while waiting for Ismael, I can still see him through my 400 mm zoom lens – lit by artificial lights, removing debris, he hasn’t come down since the first group went up.

By sheer luck the young firefighter approaches me, her co-worker is sitting next to me.

“Excuse me how old are you?” I asked her.


“And you’re already a fireman? How brave you are,” I praised her.

“My name is Claudia Brisuela, I’m platoon chief of the 1st Firefighter Command of Old Havana.”

“When you see her work, she’s tremendous,” interrupts the young man next to me.

She smiles with a still adolescent face. Klau, the name on her helmet, began at the age of 12 in the circle of interest of firefighters, when she finished high school she decided to enlist in the firefighting forces of the MININT. She graduated as a professional firefighter a year and three months ago.

21:50 – “Did Inti stay up there?” Luren asks.

“Yes,” answers Ismael who finally returns.

“Ismael,” I called out in sorrow.

“If you give me a few minutes to prepare the other group, I’ll give you an interview right away.”

I felt an enormous embarrassment for the interruption, it showed on my face, to which he answered me: “Don’t be sorry, he who waits for too much waits for too little and you have waited long enough.”

22:20 – “The Red Cross is the oldest humanitarian society in the world”, is how the interview with Ismael Eduardo Caro Lam began.

The 34 year old young man tells me about the genesis of the Red Cross, its beginnings in Cuba, its objectives and exploits in the face of disasters in the country, he talks to me about ethics in the face of life.

“I’ve been a Red Cross technician for twelve years, I’ve been in the movement since I was 18, because to start in this kind of work you have to be of legal age.”

Like Claudia, his beginnings in the Red Cross came from a circle of interest in elementary school. He was in the 4th grade, at 16 he began to collaborate with the Red Cross until he became an adult.

“If you saw me get out of the search for people in the rubble, it’s because in this type of work we have the duty to take care of the volunteers.” According to Ismael, 90 percent of the Red Cross team is made up of volunteers. “They are very important, we owe everything to them, and they are the base, the structure and the body of everything we are.”

“They give us part of their time – and their lives – to do this work. I have the legal and moral responsibility to answer for the lives of the volunteers. I’m the head of the specialized operation and relief group of the Havana Red Cross, which is the entity’s rescue and salvage group.”

“For the work to be satisfactory there must be order and discipline, that’s why I stay with all the groups to explain every detail to those with less experience, here we are risking life one hundred percent. The process has to be balanced and without violating any of the protocols, it is important to work in groups, create shifts to rest, hydrate, and keep the risk perception active to avoid any accident.”

Roky the dog marked the discovery at 4:30 pm, they have been searching for six hours without stopping.

“There are international and national protocols that delimit the work actions by defined times: 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours, 96 hours and more than 96 hrs. For this type of landslide event, there are the triages of lives, they are places where a person can survive even more than 96 hours.”

“Then the rescue work can last 96 hours and more, it depends on the magnitude of the disaster and the information that can be gathered with neighbors, community factors and relatives of the victims.”

“The estimated time does not have an end point until the person is found. The specialized teams we accompany are professionals in the search and location of people and the dogs are very effective. Generally when a dog makes a marking, we find something. The time it take has no limit”

“We will be here until whatever time it takes, until we find the last person, under no circumstances do we stop looking.”

“Bringing out a lifeless body is sad, but we treat that person with dignity, his relatives must have the possibility to say goodbye. It is sadder to turn the page if a person is not found and for us you cannot imagine how hard it is, the frustration it generates in us, we question the effort, our reason for being is to alleviate pain in human beings. Finding someone alive would be the greatest thing, the greatest prize we could have”.

22:36 – My chest is tight. Ismael assures me that the dawn would be long, that he could not tell me with certainty when they would find what Roky marked, but they would find it. With the wide angle I photographed the Capitol, for one last image as I left.

As I was writing this attempted log in the morning, official reports corroborated four more fatalities under the wreckage of the Saratoga. The number now stands at 40.

To our Saratoga heroes, Cuba thanks you.