Africa travel hit after fire ravages Nairobi airport

A plume of smoke was visible kilometres away, as Naomi Grimley reports

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Air travellers across Africa are facing long delays after a huge fire ripped through the main airport in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, forcing its closure.

Hundreds of passengers have been left stranded outside Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

It has reopened for cargo and domestic services, though many flights have been diverted to other regional airports.

The Kenyan authorities say no casualties have been reported and that the blaze has been contained.

The cause of the fire is not yet known. Security officials say they are waiting to inspect the damage before drawing any conclusions.

James Ole Lenku: "We will make sure that we establish the true cause of the fire. As of now we don't know what's happened"

However, correspondents say the airport is old and overcrowded.

Kenya's anti-terrorism chief, Boniface Mwaniki, said he did not believe the fire - which happened on the 15th anniversary of the bombings by al-Qaeda of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - was connected to terrorism.

"We don't want to speculate, but at this stage we do not think there is any such link," he told the Reuters news agency.

'Slow response'

The fire started in the airport's international arrivals and immigration area at around 05:00 (02:00 GMT) and spread quickly. Dark smoke was seen billowing into the sky above Nairobi as the blaze took hold.

Passengers arriving on international flights - some still in their seats - reported hearing explosions from the terminal building.

"When I arrived there were one or two fire engines parked outside the international arrivals. It spread very fast,'' British passenger, Martyn Collbeck, told the Associated Press. "I would have expected more fire engines to respond faster."

At the scene

The plumes of smoke bellowing from the arrival area of the airport could be seen from as far as 4km (2.5 miles) away. Outside the arrival area I saw passengers sitting on the pavement with their luggage - stranded in the early morning cold.

Those who had witnessed the fire start described scenes of chaos as people ran in the wrong direction, before rushing back out to safety. Some said they heard small explosions as the fire intensified. Hundreds of airport staff were also evacuated from the arrival area.

It was all hands on deck as firefighters from Nairobi County, the army and private firms battled the fire. I saw dozens of army officers with buckets rushing to the scene.

Some passengers complained that they had been left stranded with no information regarding their connecting flights, and no food or water.

Fire engines battled through Nairobi's infamous traffic jams to reach the airport. Witnesses said some did not arrive until one or two hours after the fire began. Many fire engines also quickly ran out of water.

It took about four hours to bring the fire under control, by which time the arrivals hall had been gutted. There were no immediate reports of any deaths of serious injuries, although two people were treated for smoke inhalation.

International flights carrying business travellers and tourists were initially diverted to the southern coastal city of Mombasa.

Later, flights were also diverted to Eldoret in the north-west and Kisumu in the west, as well as Dar es Salaam, and Entebbe in Uganda. Passengers faced bus journeys of hundreds of miles to reach Nairobi.

Passengers outside the airport said they had been stranded with no information, reports the BBC's Emmanuel Igunza at the airport.

"This is too much. It was very nice here but this is just a mess," said Medr Gudru, a German tourist who had hoped to fly home on Wednesday.

People watch dense black smoke billowing from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, early on Wednesday The fire is believed to have started in the immigration zone at about 05:00 (02:00 GMT)
A blaze rages the arrivals hall at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya on Wednesday It turned into a huge blaze that spread to the arrivals area
Black smoke billows from the international arrival unit of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya on Wednesday morning Some reports said heavy traffic on the road to the airport hindered emergency vehicles
Firefighters walk amid debris from a fire at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Kenya's capital Nairobi on Wednesday But some four hours after the blaze took hold it was reported to be controlled, with senior officials praising the work of the emergency services
Stranded passengers and onlookers gather after a fire disrupted all operations at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Kenya's capital Nairobi on Wednesday Would-be passengers were left stranded
Dark smoke rises from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday The fire sent up plumes of black smoke that could be seen from elsewhere in the capital Nairobi

"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, director of the Kenyan Airports Authority (KAA).

On Wednesday afternoon, almost 12 hours after the fire began, government officials said the airport had reopened for domestic and cargo flights.

Kenya Airways said a flight to Mombasa was expected to depart at 19:00, the Daily Nation newspaper reported.

Eyewitness: "I could see there was really no plan of action - people were just running from left to right"

Cabinet Secretary for Transport Michael Kamau told reporters that the authorities would begin preparing the small domestic terminal for handling international departures and arrivals.

"We started pitching tents on the airside for handling departing passengers," he added.

President Uhuru Kenyatta - whose father the airport is named after - has toured the remains of the international arrivals hall to see the damage. The building was gutted by the fire and the roof has partially collapsed. The floor is covered in debris and water.

'Disastrous'

The airport is a regional hub and a vital part of Kenya's tourism industry, reports BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding in Johannesburg.

Jomo Kenyatta Airport

  • Busiest airport in east and central Africa, and seventh busiest in Africa
  • Handles six million passengers a year
  • Hub for neighbouring countries as well as cities as far away as Lagos, Johannesburg and Cairo - as well as gateway to continent for Europe and Asia
  • Serves 49 destinations in 23 countries, across five continents
  • Key export point for Kenya's flower industry, one of the country's top foreign exchange earners - Kenyan flowers account for 35% of flowers imported into the EU

"President Kenyatta wishes to reassure the entire aviation industry, investors, local and international travellers that everything is being done to resume normal operations," presidential spokesman Manoah Esipisu said.

A third of Europe's flower imports, and many fresh vegetables, also come from Kenya.

"This is disastrous," Jane Ngige, chief executive officer of the exporters association, Kenya Flower Council, told Reuters.

Shares in Kenya Airways, which uses the airport as its main hub, fell 2% after the fire.

Foreign airlines which use the terminal include British Airways, Emirates, Qatar Airways, KLM, Turkish Airways, South African Airways and Ethiopian Airways. Several cancelled flights to Nairobi on Wednesday.

Kenya Airways said flights from London and Bangkok would land as scheduled in Nairobi on Thursday morning, according to Reuters.

British Airways said it was in contact with the authorities to provide customers due to travel with as much information and notice as possible.

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