Nairobi - A massive fire destroyed the arrivals hall at
Kenya's main international airport early Wednesday, forcing the closure of East
Africa's largest airport and the rerouting of all inbound flights.
No injuries were reported, said Michael Kamau, the cabinet
secretary for transport and infrastructure.
Dark black smoke that shot skyward was visible across much
of Nairobi as emergency teams battled the blaze. Passengers reported a slow
response by the under-resourced fire brigade, and the blaze raged for four
hours before being contained.
The fire broke out on the 15th anniversary of the US Embassy
bombings in Nairobi and neighbouring Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, but there were no
immediate signs of terrorism. Kenya's anti-terror police boss, Boniface
Mwaniki, told The Associated Press that he was waiting for the fire to be put
out so that he could inspect the scene before making a judgment.
"It was huge, the smoke billowing, and it didn't seem
to be stopping," said Barry Fisher, who had hoped to fly to Ethiopia on
The fire gutted the international arrivals hall, where
passengers pass through immigration and retrieve their luggage. The Kenya
Airports Authority closed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport until further
Kamau said the fire began at 05:00 in the immigration
section of the arrivals hall. Inbound flights were diverted to the coastal city
As in many countries in East Africa, public sector services
like police and fire units are hobbled by small budgets and outdated or no
equipment. Many of the responding units to Wednesday's fire were from private
A British passenger, Martyn Collbeck, said he was surprised
that the airport wasn't shut sooner so that emergency vehicles could respond.
"When I arrived there were one or two fire engines
parked outside the international arrivals. It spread very fast," said
Collbeck, who had been scheduled to fly back to London on an early morning KLM
flight. "There were a couple of explosions which I think were a couple of
"I would have expected more fire engines to respond
faster," he added.
There may not have been fire engines available to respond.
The country's largest newspaper, The Daily Nation, reported last month that
Nairobi County doesn't have a single working fire engine, and that three fire
engines were auctioned off in 2009 because the county hadn't paid a $1 000
"It is a disgrace of biblical proportions that the
entire Nairobi County does not have a public fire engine in working
condition," the paper wrote in an editorial last month. "When [government
leaders] were debating their budgets, they did not deem it fit to set aside
money either to buy new ones or repair the old ones. But they did set aside
money to build mansions for governors, [buy] big vehicles for county executives
and other needs without a direct benefit to Kenyans."
The paper said the collapse of the fire department means
responses to disasters is in the hands of private companies and the military.
The Nairobi airport is the busiest airport in East Africa,
and its closure is likely to affect flights throughout the region.
Fisher, a trade specialist who lives in Nairobi, described
the scene as chaotic.
"There was no one stopping any traffic going to the
road to the airport," he said. "A number of fire trucks and
ambulances were trying to negotiate their way through the lane. ... They were
trying to weave their way through a solid two lanes of cars."