A fire has engulfed much of Kenya's main international airport in Nairobi, forcing its evacuation and the re-routing of all inbound flights.
While the worst of the injuries involved two people being treated for smoke inhalation, the closure of and damage to the airport will be a hammer blow to industry for whole swathes of East Africa.
The Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is the largest in the region, a portal for a disproportionately large number of the continent’s businesses.
The fire came on the fifteenth anniversary of the bombings targeting US embassies in Nairobi and the city of Dar es Salaam in neighbouring Tanzania, but there was little to suggest it was a terrorist incident this time.
Nonetheless, Kenya’s anti-terror police chief Boniface Mwaniki said he was reserving judgement until the fire had been put out and he could inspect the scene.
The fire gutted out the whole the international arrivals hall, and as a result the entire of the airport was shut down, with some flights redirected through Tanzania, Uganda, and other Kenyan cities like Mombasa.
The airport opened for domestic and cargo flights this afternoon and Kenya's cabinet secretary for transport and infrastructure, Michael Kamau, said plans were underway to allow international flights to use the domestic terminal tomorrow.
“We reassure international and local travellers that arrangements are being put in place to restore normal operations. The airlines are working to assist stranded passengers and advise them on the measures being put in place to resume services at JKIA,” said Stephen Gichuki, the director of the Kenyan Airports Authority.
The fire began at 5am in the immigration section of the arrivals hall, and raged for more than four hours before it could be contained, if not completely put out.
Dark smoke was visible across much of Nairobi, yet the response of the fire services was initially noted as slow, leading to questions over whether the incident could have been handled better.
As in many countries in East Africa, Kenya’s public sector services like police and fire units struggle with small budgets and outdated equipment. Many of the responding units to the fire were from private security firms.
A British passenger, Martyn Collbeck, said he was surprised that the airport was not 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,” he said. “There were a couple of 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 single working fire engine, and that three fire engines were auctioned off in 2009 because the county had not paid an £800 repair bill.
“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, 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.
By early afternoon, passengers began to grumble that minimal assistance was being offered. Medr Gudru, a 66-year-old German, had hoped to fly home but the fire stranded him with no information.
Jane Waikenda, the director of the Department of Immigration Services, sent out messages on Twitter in a bid to soothe frayed nerves.
“I would like to reiterate that we are doing what must be done to have full immigration services up,” she wrote, before adding moments later: “you can never please everyone. We appreciate being held accountable as we strive to serve all Kenyans fairly.”
Additional reporting by the Associated PressReuse content