Fire wipes out Nairobi airport arrival hall on Al Qaeda attack anniversary

An early morning fire at Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport began in the immigration section and spread rapidly. 

Segeni Ngethe/AP
Onlookers watch as black smoke billows from the international arrival unit of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. A massive fire engulfed the arrivals hall at Kenya's main international airport early Wednesday, forcing East Africa's largest airport to close and the rerouting of all inbound flights.

A huge fire destroyed the arrivals hall and immigration unit at East Africa’s busiest airport early Wednesday, grounding flights and leaving thousands of passengers including summer vacationers stranded.

Firefighters struggling with low water supplies took three hours to contain the blaze, which started an hour before dawn at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

One airline employee and one passenger were taken to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, but there were no reports of other casualties.

Parts of the airport were however seriously damaged and will need weeks of reconstruction.

The fire broke out on the 15th anniversary of Al Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania but officials said there was no immediate indication the fire was a bomb or a deliberate act. However, further investigations are expected.

The fire began at the immigration and passport control desks, before spreading to the baggage collection and arrivals halls, Manoah Esipisu, Kenya’s presidential spokesman, told reporters outside the blackened building. 

Flames flew high into the air above the two-story building, and a huge plume of smoke was seen billowing above the airport at first light. 

"We want to assure all investors and our international travelers that everything is being done, and that cargo and domestic flights will resume this afternoon," Mr. Esipisu said. 

"Resumption of international flights will be communicated later," he added, standing outside a blackened structure. The area of the airport that hosts international travelers and processes immigration was essentially destroyed.

Flights arriving to Nairobi from London, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Mumbai, Dubai, Doha and eight regional cities were diverted to Kenya’s Mombasa and Eldoret airports. More than 90 flights had been cancelled by 3 p.m. local time. Officials said that they had no time-frame yet for when the airport would be fully operational again.

Some 220 flights a day land and take-off at Nairobi, which is the main hub for East Africa and the region's busiest airport. It is especially busy during August with summer vacationers from the US, Europe, and Asia arriving for safaris to view the wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara wildlife reserve.

The airport serves airlines including British Airways, KLM, Air France, Turkish Airlines, Emirates, and Qatar Airways, as well as being Kenya Airways’ headquarters.

Edwin Macharia, a passenger arriving from Johannesburg, tweeted that there was a “huge explosion” inside the terminal building as he was still on board waiting to disembark from his aircraft early Wednesday.

“Huge explosion felt even in our plane. Glass on the parking spots next to the building. Feeling like a sitting duck,” Mr. Macharia wrote.

This was likely to have been caused by the intensity of the fire and not from a bomb, said Eric Kiraithe, head of security at Kenya Airports Authority.

Al-Qaeda bombers carried out suicide attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, 15 years ago today, killing 223 people. 

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