A massive early-morning fire destroyed the arrivals hall at Kenya’s main international airport on Wednesday, forcing the closure of East Africa’s largest airport and the rerouting of all inbound flights. No serious injuries were reported, said Michael Kamau, the cabinet secretary for transport and infrastructure.
Dark black smoke was visible across much of Nairobi as emergency teams battled the blaze. Passengers reported a slow response by the under-resourced fire brigade. The fire raged for more than four hours before being contained, though flames still persisted two hours later.
“It was huge, the smoke billowing, and it didn’t seem to be stopping,” said Barry Fisher, who had hoped to fly to Ethiopia. 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.
The Nairobi airport is the busiest in East Africa, and its closure is likely to affect flights throughout the region and beyond.
As in many countries in East Africa, public sector services like police and fire units in Kenya are hobbled by small budgets and outdated or no equipment.
Many of the responding units to Wednesday’s fire were from private security firms. 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 to London on an early morning KLM flight. “I would have expected more fire engines to respond faster,” he added.
There may not have been fire engines available to respond. Nairobi County doesn’t have a single working engine, and that three fire engines were auctioned off in 2009 because the county hadn’t paid a $1,000 (Rs 61,000) repair bill.
16k Number of passengers that transit through the airport everyday
250 Number of flights that take-off and land at the airport
0 Number of fire engines the Nairobi county has