Kenya scrambles to limit economic fallout from massive airport fire

NAIROBI, Kenya — Domestic flights resumed Wednesday evening at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport using the cargo terminal, as authorities struggled to contain the economic fallout from a devastating fire at the main international terminal.

Kenya's economy is heavily dependent on international tourism and flower exports to Europe. International flights were to resume Thursday from the small domestic terminal.

“President [Uhuru] 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 the presidency said.

Despite the government's efforts, however, the economic impact of the fire will likely reverberate for months. The airport is a major regional hub for tourism and cargo.

Presidential spokesman Manoah Esipisu told a news conference that aviation authorities had cleared the domestic terminal for international flights. Flights from Bangkok and London were to resume Thursday, a Kenya Airways spokesman said Wednesday.

But with thousands of passengers traveling through the airport daily, the cramped domestic terminal will probably struggle to contain the crowds.

Many Kenyans saw the response to the emergency as slow and inadequate. Local media reported that fire trucks lacked sufficient water to contain the blaze quickly.

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

When Kenyan immigration officer Phillip Ogembo arrived at work just after 7 a.m. Wednesday, his office in the international terminal building was a wall of orange flame.

"I think we are lagging too far behind as a country in handling such incidents," Ogembo said. "This fire, I hear, broke out at about 5 a.m., and looking at the situation now, it's almost noon — more than seven hours later — and it's still burning."

"It's painful to witness this," he said, standing outside the airport watching the fire trucks battling the blaze. "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."

It was not immediately known what caused the fire, the presidency said.

The massive blaze reportedly took hold after dawn in the immigration area and spread rapidly through the terminal building, sending flames and billowing black smoke into the air. Officials said there were no casualties.

Kenyatta, facing his first major test as president, rushed to the airport as firefighters fought the blaze. He announced an inquiry into the cause.

Five flights and more than 1,000 passengers were diverted to Mombasa — a coastal town some six hours drive from the capital of Nairobi — where international tourists were placed in hotels and told to await domestic flights to Nairobi on Thursday. Some were transported by bus to the capital.

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."

The airport fire happened on the 15th anniversary of the bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 223 people and injured thousands.

The coincidence sparked speculation on Twitter that the fire may have been a terrorist attack; however, authorities have ruled out criminality. The incident didn't follow the normal pattern of terror attacks in Kenya, which typically target people and involve bombs, grenades or explosives. Also, no terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the fire.

Another theory discounted by authorities was that the blaze was connected to the airport authority's forcible eviction of duty-free store holders last week.

The Kenya Airports Authority called on people not to speculate about the cause of the blaze, saying an inquiry had begun.


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