Havana (AP) — Alejandro Clemente González was talking to an electrician as he prepared for a weekend service at Cuba’s most important Baptist church when a A huge explosion shook the building, shattering the 19th-century dome well above the benches.
On May 6, an apparent gas explosion next door killed at least 43 people and killed at least 43 others.
“I don’t know what happened,” the church administrator said in a shaky voice Wednesday as he revisited the sanctuary with Associated Press reporters. “I called on the Lord, ‘Lord, what is this? Help us!'”
He said the two heard the receptionist’s shouts as debris tumbled around them, blocking their way.
“I remember there was an exit at the back, and then the brothers on the third floor came down. We all ran into each other and counted each other,” managed to escape. If shaken, all 18 people inside were uninjured.
“I haven’t slept well since. I heard every sound,” Gonzalez said.
The building, which houses not only the Golgotha Baptist Church, but also a seminary and the denomination’s headquarters in western Cuba, has collapsed on the upper floors of the building.
Sunlight filtered through cracks in the exterior walls, windows were smashed, and window frames were torn from the walls. The halls and rooms of the dilapidated hotel are visible through the cracks. A thick layer of grey dust covered the dark wood benches where hundreds of people gathered for worship services.
This famous and elegant building, now known as the Teatro Marti, is only a few years old, and in 1887 the Baptists began hosting services on a corner across the street in Old Havana, where the circus once held. Cuba is still a Spanish colony, and its Capitol — modeled after the U.S. Capitol — won’t be built nearby for decades.
The Baptists purchased the property in 1889 and gradually established churches, printing houses, schools, seminaries and headquarters in western Cuba, which now serve approximately 70,000 Baptists. Overall, the church estimates there are approximately 200,000 Baptists islandwide.
“This is home to every believer, every Christian, every Baptist who comes,” said Pastor David Gonzalez, 31, who has lived in the Baptist Church for the past two years. In an apartment next to the church, which is now partially collapsed.
Authorities have so far focused their emergency efforts on trying to find the living and dead in and around the destroyed hotel, but they did meet with church officials about the state of the church.
“They communicated to us a desire to help as much as possible,” said Pastor Barbaro Abel Marrero Castellanos, president of the Cuban Western Baptist Church. “Obviously, the resources needed for recovery are not all, and they have also asked us to gather help, and as far as we know, the church in the country itself … and churches around the world have provided help.”
“We still don’t know the exact extent of the damage,” he said, adding that some experts said they might have to assess parts of the structure that could be demolished.
Since the building has been registered as part of the country’s historical heritage, the restoration will be chaired by the Office of the Havana Historian, which has overseen the restoration of much of Old Havana in recent decades.
“We will be actively involved in this process, and together with all the brothers and friends who are willing to help, we hope to make a beautiful project,” Marrero said.
Meanwhile, church members are attending other congregations, despite an offer from the government to help find temporary space for those from Calvary.
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