A MASSIVE fire engulfed Kenya’s main airport yesterday, forcing the indefinite suspension of international passenger flights and choking a vital travel gateway to east Africa.
The blaze lit up the early morning sky and the billowing clouds of black smoke engulfing the terminal buildings were visible from miles away.
The intense heat repeatedly drove back firefighters who battled for five hours to put out the fire, the worst on record at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, east Africa’s busiest.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the fire, which started in the arrivals and immigration area. Business travellers and tourists were diverted to other airports in the region.
Michael Kamau, cabinet secretary for transport, said an investigation into the fire would start immediately but it was too early to speculate on the cause.
Inside the gutted building, neat lines of metal trolleys with melted plastic handles were one of few clear reminders that the building – whose roof partially collapsed – was once an airport terminal.
Some passengers searched for their luggage amid the charred ruins while outside, staff from Western embassies waved their national flags to attract passengers looking for a route home or a place to stay.
The fire coincided with the 15th anniversary of a twin attacks by Islamist militants on the United States embassy in Kenyan capital Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of neighbouring Tanzania.
Security analysts said there was as yet no indication of any link to Islamist militants that Kenyan soldiers are battling in neighbouring Somalia as part of an African Union force.
“It doesn’t bear the hallmarks of an al-Shabaab operation but one never knows. It might be something new,” said a regional security analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The fire was a major blow to Kenya right at the start of the busiest period of the tourism season, a key sector for the economy and an important source of foreign currency earnings.
Passengers reported a slow response by the under-resourced fire brigade.
As in many countries in east Africa, public sector services, such as police and fire units in Kenya are hobbled by small budgets and outdated equipment. Many of the units responding to yesterday’s fire were from private security firms.
Briton, 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 Mr Collbeck, who had been scheduled to fly to London on an early KLM flight.
“There were explosions which I think were a couple of gas canisters.”
“I would have expected more fire engines to respond faster.”
There may not have been fire engines available to respond. The country’s largest newspaper, The Daily Nation, reported last month that Nairobi county does not have a working fire engine and that three fire engines were auctioned off in 2009 because the county hadn’t paid a $1,000 (£645) repair bill.
The paper said the collapse of the fire department means responses to disasters is in the hands of private companies and the military.