NAIROBI, Kenya — A small fire at Kenya’s main airport swelled into a roaring inferno Wednesday that destroyed part of East Africa’s largest aviation hub and hampered air travel across the continent.
Firefighters were desperately short of equipment in an area where the county government apparently lacks a single working fire engine. Crews needed hours to get the flames under control and at one point resorted to a line of officers passing water buckets.
The early morning blaze gutted the arrival hall, forcing authorities to close the entire airport and airlines to cancel dozens of flights. The flames also charred airport banks and foreign exchange bureaus. No serious injuries were reported.
The fire broke out on the 15th anniversary of the bombings by al-Qaida of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, in neighboring Tanzania. No terror connection to the fire was immediately evident, but the blaze revived long-standing safety concerns about Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
A statement from Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta said the cause of the fire was being investigated and that “there is no reason to speculate at this point.”
Kenya’s anti-terror police boss, Boniface Mwaniki, said he was waiting for more information before completely ruling out terrorism.
Authorities last week shut down several duty-free shops at the airport, and some Kenyan media reports speculated that disgruntled parties from the forced closings may have had motive to carry out an arson attack. No government official made such an accusation Wednesday.
International airlines, including South African Airways, Etihad and Emirates, cancelled flights to Nairobi. Qatar Air said its Nairobi flights were being rerouted to the Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania.
The domestic and departure terminals, which are separated from the arrivals hall by a road, were undamaged.
By the end of the day, the airport re-opened for domestic and cargo flights but remained closed to international flights. Officials planned to convert a domestic-flight area into an international terminal for the time being.
No U.S. carriers fly direct to Nairobi. Delta Air Lines, based in Atlanta, tried to open such a route in 2009, but the Transportation Security Administration rejected the plan because of security concerns.
Nairobi County does not have a single working fire engine, the Daily Nation, a Nairobi newspaper, reported last month. One engine, the paper said, was auctioned in 2009 because the county had not paid a $100 repair bill.
An Associated Press reporter at the airport Wednesday saw uniformed officers line up with buckets in hand, apparently to battle the blaze.
Many of the units that battled Wednesday’s fire were from private security firms and had to fight airport traffic to get there.
Fire trucks and ambulances on the way to the airport “were trying to weave their way through a solid two lanes of cars,” said Barry Fisher, whose flight to Ethiopia was canceled.
Nairobi is the capital of East Africa’s largest economy, but public-sector services such as police and fire departments are hobbled by small budgets, corrupt money managers and outdated equipment or a complete lack of equipment.
A top government official at the scene of the fire said an initial assessment shows that a complacent response helped a small fire grow into an uncontrollable conflagration.
Some airport fire engines were not filled with water and others did not have personnel to drive them, said the official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of an ongoing investigation.
Michael Kamau, the cabinet secretary for transport and infrastructure, said the fire began at 5 a.m. in the immigration section of the arrivals hall.
Inbound flights were diverted to the coastal city of Mombasa, he said.
Other flights were diverted to Dar es Salaam, the Kenyan cities of Eldoret and Kisumu and Entebbe, Uganda, according to Kenya’s Red Cross.
Kenya Airways, the country’s flagship carrier, diverted five flights to Mombasa and said all of its passengers in transit were being moved to hotels. The airline reported that one passenger and one employee suffered from smoke inhalation.
Medr Gudru, a 66-year-old German, had hoped to fly home on Wednesday but the fire stranded him.
“This is too much. It was very nice here but this is just a mess,” he said.
Jane Waikenda, director of the Department of Immigration Services, tweeted in a bid to soothe frayed nerves. She said officials were “doing what must be done” to restore immigration services. But, she added moments later, “you can never please everyone.”