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Delayed response to JKIA inferno exposes Kenya’s soft underbelly

By By CYRUS OMBATI | Published Thu, August 8th 2013 at 00:00, Updated August 7th 2013 at 23:56 GMT +3
A military officer carries a bucket to put out fire at JKIA, Wednesday.  [PHOTO: JOHN MUCHUCHA/STANDARD]


Nairobi, Kenya: The fire that burnt the entire international arrivals terminal exposed the country’s biggest airport’s soft under- belly and highlighted the poor response to emergencies also evident in past disasters.

To some, the fire could have been contained in time, had there been proper coordination and response. As much as the response was prompt, the service providers were unable to contain the inferno.

And the sight of about 200 personnel from the military armed with buckets to help suppress the fire summed it all on how poorly armed and unprepared the country is to address such disasters.

The firefighters fetched water from three main hydrants that started to work several minutes after the fire broke out.

Some airport personnel also arrived with handheld fire extinguishers to join others, endangering their lives given that they did not have protective gear to fight the inferno.

Fire engines at the scene were at times unable to push water up to the upper floors that were in flames.

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A police chopper hovered overhead for a while before leaving. The hydrants were functioning but were not sufficient to provide the required amount of water, officials said.

It took more than six hours to contain the blaze that could have been addressed in time, given the source was established as soon as it broke out.

One tourist headed to Cameroon said there was a form of complacency and inability on the part of the authorities to contain the blaze.

“This is supposed to be one of the most taken care of facilities and to see it go down like this is shocking and someone should be forced to account for his or her work,” she said as she walked away.

Other visitors said they lost their property to goons who attacked them after being blocked from accessing the area near the main gate.

Motorists also blocked roads hampering response efforts. The incident has prompted foreigners to call for the construction of an emergency service road to the airport. JKIA is a major transport hub for the region, with passengers from other African countries connecting to and from European, Middle East and Asian airports.

It is also supposed to be highly secured at all times, especially in this era of terrorism and other forms of crimes. An alarm had been raised before the airport’s fire engines got there. But they were overwhelmed as the fire spread fast to other floors and the departure section.

Several inmates who had been held by immigration officials at the affected building were immediately evacuated. Minutes later, several fire engines from Nairobi City County, Kenya Army, G4S, National Youth Service and Kenya Pipeline Company, among others, arrived at the scene to help douse the inferno in vain.

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