NAIROBI — A small fire at Kenya’s main airport swelled into a roaring inferno on 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 working fire engine. Crews needed hours to get flames under control and 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 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 Qaeda of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania. No terrorist connection to the fire was evident, but the blaze revived long-standing safety concerns about Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
A statement from 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 antiterrorism police boss, Boniface Mwaniki, was waiting for more information before ruling out terrorism.
Authorities shut down several duty-free shops at the airport last week, and Kenyan media reports speculated that disgruntled parties from the forced closings 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, canceled 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 opened for domestic and cargo flights but remained closed to international flights. Officials planned to convert a domestic-flight area into an international terminal.
No US carriers fly direct to Nairobi. Delta Air Lines tried to open such a route in 2009, but the Transportation Security Administration rejected it because of security concerns.
Nairobi County does not have a single working fire engine, reported the Daily Nation, a Nairobi newspaper.