Nairobi airport fire may deal a blow to Kenya's economy

NAIROBI, Kenya — When immigration officer Phillip Ogembo arrived at the Nairobi airport just after 7 a.m. Wednesday, he found his office in the international terminal a wall of orange flames.

Ogembo, 34, joined a throng of airport workers watching firefighters struggle without adequate water and equipment to put out an inferno that sent flames and billowing black smoke into the air for hours.

The blaze reportedly took hold around dawn in the immigration area of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, a major regional hub in East Africa for tourists and cargo. Officials said there were no casualties, but the economic repercussions were likely to be considerable. And the fire raised serious doubt about authorities' ability to respond.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known, Kenya's presidency said. The fire broke out at a time of heightened concern about possible terrorist plots, which has prompted U.S. officials to close embassies and other facilities in a number of countries. And it coincided with the 15th anniversary of bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 220 people and injured thousands.

But officials ruled out a criminal act. There was no claim of responsibility and the incident did not appear to involve an explosion or otherwise follow the pattern of terrorist attacks in Kenya.

Ben Ngunga, a manager for the Abercrombie & Kent tour company, said the fire would have a huge effect tourism companies and the government's coffers. August is traditionally the busiest month for tourism.

Domestic flights resumed Wednesday evening. Manoah Esipisu, a spokesman for President Uhuru Kenyatta, told reporters that aviation authorities had cleared the cramped domestic terminal to also handle international flights. Flights from London and Bangkok, Thailand, were to resume Thursday, a Kenya Airways spokesman said.

But with thousands of passengers traveling through the airport daily, it probably will be a struggle to accommodate the crowd in the domestic terminal.

"President Kenyatta wishes to reassure the entire aviation industry, investors, local and international travelers that everything is being done to resume normal operations," a statement from Kenyatta's office said.

Many Kenyans saw the response to the emergency as slow and inadequate. Local news reports said firetrucks lacked sufficient water to contain the blaze quickly.

The Daily Nation newspaper reported last month that the Nairobi City Council didn't have a single working firetruck and had auctioned one off to pay a repair bill. Most of the firetrucks used in fighting the airport blaze were from private firms, the Associated Press reported.

"I think we are lagging too far behind as a country in handling such incidents," said Ogembo, the immigration officer, as firefighters tried to bring the blaze under control. "It's painful to witness this.

"Those trucks run out of water and run for more, and the fire extends to more areas. This creates a negative image of our country internationally and will probably scare away some foreign visitors," he said.

Geoffrey Oidare, 22, an airport cleaner, feared for his job.

"When I reported for work, I found the whole building on fire. I am shocked, and even now I can't imagine this kind of accident at the airport," he said. "The whole building is inaccessible and there is no power. Everything is a mess."

Special correspondent Soi reported from Nairobi and Times staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World