The entire island was shocked to hear the news that a Boeing 737-200 leased by Cubana de Aviación had crashed in Havana moments after taking off.
I thought something terrible had happened when more than 20 ambulances and police cars came thundering down Infanta Avenue at full speed, at around midday on May 18.
Minutes later news of the crash arrived. Fire fighters and the Civil Defense were on the scene in a matter of minutes. In less than an hour, social media began reporting that Miguel Díaz-Canel, President of the Councils of State and Minister of Cuba, was at the scene with other government officials, including Minister of Public Health and a Council of State Vice President, Roberto Morales Ojeda.
In his first remarks, Díaz-Canel called on the Cuban people to remain calm, and denied rumors that the plane had crashed in a populated area. He recognized the discipline and support of the population and reported on the status of survivors.
The reaction of the Revolutionary authorities to this tragic, unexpected event has been no different to that of other times when the pain or threat of a disaster has swept the island.
Fifty-five years ago, the east of the island was hit from October 4-8, 1963, by Hurricane Flora, the second most devastating catastrophe in Cuba’s history.
Fidel, at that time Prime Minister, moved his entire government team to the affected areas, and personally oversaw search and rescue efforts as the storm raged on. Some even claim that Fidel nearly died after almost being swept away when the River Cauto, which flows toward Bayamo, burst its banks.
“When Flora happened,” recalled journalist Adelfa Hernández in a report for Radio Angulo, Holguín, “the Comandante en Jefe not only used all available resources, such as fumigation aircrafts, helicopters, row and motor boats, horses, and the military’s amphibious vehicles, but also literally swam to some of the affected areas.”
Many cried with joy when he arrived, and although Flora had left families in the worst hit zones with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, seeing Fidel in person was, for them, proof that they would not be abandoned to their fate.
Since then there has not been a single hurricane during which potential victims have not been sheltered and hundreds of thousands of people evacuated.
Another more recent disaster was the large-scale fire which broke out in the city of Santiago de Cuba on August 29, 2012. Minutes after the explosion at a gas station on the Morro highway – injuring 32 people, 14 seriously – local authorities and firefighters arrived at the scene where they worked to put out the blaze and stop its spreading.
The injured were quickly taken to the city’s emergency service facilities and later transferred to specialist burn units at the Dr. Juan Bruno Zayas Clinical-Surgical Hospital, where doctors worked for days to save heir lives.
Following the passing of Hurricanes Sandy, in 2012, and Matthew, in 2016, Army General Raúl Castro travelled to the worst affected areas in the east of the island where he personally accompanied recovery efforts.
Over half a century after Hurricane Flora and almost six years since the Santiago de Cuba disaster, the island faced a new catastrophe. Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the region, reached Havana on the morning of Sunday, September 10, after wreaking devastation in the provinces along Cuba’s northern coastline.
Just like this time, I was an unwitting witness to the event.
The unprecedented levels of flooding caused by Irma in the capital forced divers, fire fighters, and local authorities to evacuate the majority of families in the area around San Lázaro and Soledad in Central Havana.
During the evacuation I watched as a fire fighter carried a baby from a flooded house and into the safety of the mother’s arms, who wept as she clung to her child.
In the area between the streets Campanario and Lealtad, I also saw how search and rescue brigades, alongside local authorities, worked to rescue an elderly gentleman from the collapsed roof of his home.
Today, just like then, the Cuban people are not alone.
It is 6pm on May 18, and as everything gets back to normal on Infanta Avenue, and the sound of police cars and ambulances can no longer be heard - as Cuba mourns the tragic Boeing 737-200 disaster - fire fighters, paramedics and local officials will continue to accompany the families of the victims and survivors.