Detectives comb through JKIA to unravel cause of mystery blaze

Security officers rush to fetch water to help put out a fire at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Wednesday.  [PHOTO: STAFFORD ONDEGO/STANDARD]

By Cyrus Ombati and Ally Jamah

Nairobi, Kenya: Investigators sifted through the debris in search of vital clues hours after Kenya’s worst airport blaze closed down the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) at dawn on Wednesday.

The fire, which is believed to have started at the Immigrations Desk at around 5am, gutted the four-storey international arrivals terminal, prompting the shut-down of the busiest airport in East and Central Africa. 

There were no casualties but Kenya Airways reported “one member of staff and a passenger had slight smoke inhalation and were safe in hospital for further investigation.”

Several police units were deployed to unravel the puzzling cause of the fire that left thousands of passengers stranded and incoming flights diverted to airports in Mombasa and Eldoret.

“Investigations by security agencies have commenced and are ongoing. There is no reason to speculate over the causes of the fire,” said Transport Cabinet Secretary Michael Kamau.

Officers from the Anti-Terror Police, Bomb Disposal and Kenya Airports Police units, Nairobi County and CID headquarters are taking part in investigations. Kenya Power personnel are also at the scene.

Early speculation swirled around the strange coincidence of events at the airport such as Tuesday’s disruption of jet fuel supply that delayed flights for hours and last week’s demolition of duty free shops in contested circumstances.

The biggest fire in recent times also occurred on the day, 15 years ago, that the US embassy in downtown Nairobi was bombed by terrorists with the loss of hundreds of lives (see separate story).

Yesterday, police and airport officials said they were yet to establish the cause of the fire. President Kenyatta visited the scene to assess the damage and regretted the “serious disruption of aviation operations at the airport”.

“President Kenyatta wishes to inform all stakeholders and Kenyans that the cause of the fire is being investigated. There is no reason to speculate at this point,” said a statement from State House.

Ill-prepared efforts

But as the embers died down more than six hours later, further questions emerged as to why it took so long to contain a fire at one of the country’s most secure and vital installations.

Sources told The Standard that there is a water hydrant every 50 yards covering the area of the airport.

Witnesses said the fire started as a small flame at the Immigrations Desk before quickly spreading and engulfing the building through which all incoming passengers are cleared.

Accounts from passengers and taxi drivers at the airport painted a picture of disjointed and ill-prepared efforts to quell the fire.

Although the water hydrants were functioning, they did not discharge sufficient amounts of water, officials said. This forced the deployment of water bowsers to draw more water from other nearby hydrants.

The fire engines that were early on the scene were unable to spray water up to the upper floors. A police chopper hovered for a while before leaving. Worsening the situation, emergency service providers were held up in a traffic jam that was caused by curious motorists who had been blocked by police while trying to reach the airport.

About 200 military personnel  who came armed with basins of water best highlighted the desperation.

Two South Africans, Chris Maree and Adrian Adams, who arrived at JKIA shortly before 5am, spoke of a slight smell of smoke in the air, but no one seemed particularly concerned.

That raised the question whether smoke detectors, given the warnings prominently displayed in washrooms at the airport, are in operation.

But after a while, they said, an evacuation signal sounded and all passengers were asked to leave the international lounge.

“We didn’t see the fire engines active until a bit later when two came. The water they were spraying seemed too little to contain the fire. I think if the response was quicker, the fire could probably have been stopped,” said Maree.

The two were connecting through Nairobi to Accra. 

 “Workers rushed out saying they had seen smoke in that office and we thought it was a small fire. It is unbelievable that they could not manage it,” said taxi driver John Kimani.

“Initially, the smoke from the immigration area appeared small. But I was surprised that it spread so quickly without being contained at the earliest opportunity. I have never heard of a major part of the airport burning almost to the ground. The emergency people should have responded much faster,” said another passenger from France en route to Eldoret to see his girlfriend.

Several banks, hotels, mobile service provider shops and police station offices were burnt down as well as passengers’ luggage.

 An unknown amount of money that was in the banks, foreign exchange bureaux and ATMs was also presumably lost.

Officials said planes already on the runway were cleared to pave way for emergency landings. Several flights that were taking off and landing were cancelled. Kenya Airports Authority staff and immigration officials immediately evacuated passengers.

 Several inmates who had been held by immigration officials in the building were immediately evacuated as well.

It was claimed the forcible evictions at the duty free shops could have tampered with electrical wiring systems. But authorities discounted the theory, with Kamau explaining that the shops were not adjacent to where the fire started.

Personnel from the National Intelligence Service (NIS) led by the Director General Michael Gichangi scoured the scene.

CID Director Ndegwa Muhoro said: “The personnel will take time to unravel the cause of the fire. Let us give them time.” Last evening, authorities announced minimal operations had resumed at the fire-scarred airport, including departure and arrival of domestic flights.

Cargo flights scheduled to depart from JKIA left last evening, said Kamau. “The airport emergency operations team is working round the clock to prepare Units 2 & 3 for arrival and departure of international flights as soon as possible,” said Kamau.

Kenya Airways had scheduled limited domestic operations with the first flight at 7pm and another at 9pm last night.