NAIROBI, Kenya - A small fire that an under-resourced fire brigade reacted slowly to swelled into a raging inferno that engulfed the arrival hall at Kenya's main international airport Wednesday, an official said, shutting down East Africa's largest airport and forcing the cancellation of dozens of flights.
By late Wednesday, the airport re-opened for domestic and cargo flights, an official said.
The massive, early-morning fire sent billows of black smoke high into Nairobi's sky. The blaze burned for more than four hours before officials declared it contained, and flames continued to burn two more hours after that.
The fire broke out on the 15th anniversary of the bombings of the U.S. Embassy buildings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, in neighbouring Tanzania, but there were no immediate signs of terrorism in the fire. Kenya's anti-terror police boss, Boniface Mwaniki, told The Associated Press that he was waiting for more information before making a judgment.
No serious injuries were reported. Two people were treated for smoke inhalation from the fire, which began a bit before 5 a.m. and turned airport banks and foreign exchange bureaus into black char.
"There were enormous flames and so much smoke," said Katie Price, an American aid worker who arrived in Nairobi early Wednesday from Malawi.
The fire gutted Jomo Kenyatta International Airport's arrival hall, where passengers pass through immigration and retrieve their luggage. The fire did not damage the domestic or departure terminals, which are separated from the arrivals hall by a road.
"It was huge, the smoke billowing, and it didn't seem to be stopping," said Barry Fisher, who had hoped to fly to Ethiopia on Wednesday morning.
Nairobi is the capital of East Africa's largest economy, but it lies in a region where public sector services like police and fire units are hobbled by small budgets, corrupt money managers and outdated or no equipment.
Nairobi's most respected paper, The Daily Nation, reported last month that Nairobi County doesn't have a single working fire engine. One engine, the paper said, was auctioned off in 2009 because the county hadn't paid a $100 repair bill. Many of the responding units to Wednesday's fire were from private security firms.
An Associated Press reporter on the scene saw uniformed officers line up with buckets in hand, apparently to battle the blaze.
"I would have expected more fire engines to respond faster," said a British passenger, Martyn Collbeck, who had been scheduled to fly to London on an early morning KLM flight.
A top government official at the site of the fire said an initial assessment showed that a complacent response helped a small fire grow into an uncontrollable inferno. Some airport fire engines weren't filled with water and others didn't have personnel to drive them, said the official, who insisted on anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release details of an ongoing investigation.
The airport, also known as JKIA, re-opened later Wednesday for domestic and cargo flights. Plans were under way to change a domestic unit into an international terminal so those flights could resume as well.
International airlines, including South African Airways, Etihad and Emirates among others, cancelled flights to Nairobi. Qatar Air said its Nairobi flights were being rerouted to the Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania.
No U.S. carriers fly direct to Nairobi. Delta in 2009 tried to open such a route but the Transportation Security Administration nixed those plans because of security concerns.
Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta visited the scene and expressed concern over disrupted travel plans. A presidential statement said the cause of the fire is being investigated and that "there is no reason to speculate at this point."
"We reassure international and local travellers that arrangements are being put in place to restore normal operations. The airlines are working to assist stranded passengers and advise them on the measures being put in place to resume services," said Stephen Gichuki, the director of the Kenyan Airports Authority.
The Nairobi airport is the busiest in East Africa, and its closure affected flights throughout the region and beyond.
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. Kenya's Red Cross said that flights were also being diverted to Dar es Salaam, Entebbe, Uganda and the Kenyan cities of Eldoret and Kisumu.
The police and fire fighting response was slow, witnesses said. Long after the fire began it was still possible to drive into the airport complex.
"There was no one stopping any traffic going to the road to the airport," Fisher said. "A number of fire trucks and ambulances were trying to negotiate their way through the lane. ... They were trying to weave their way through a solid two lanes of cars."
By early afternoon, passengers began to grumble that minimal assistance was being offered. Medr Gudru, a 66-year-old German, had hoped to fly home on Wednesday but the fire stranded him with no information, he said.
"This is too much. It was very nice here but this is just a mess," he said.
Kenya Airways, the country's flagship carrier, diverted five flights to Mombasa and said all of its transit passengers were being moved to hotels. The airline reported that one passenger and one employee suffered from smoke inhalation.
Jane Waikenda, the director of the Department of Immigration Services, sent out rapid-fire messages on Twitter in a bid to soothe frayed nerves.
"I would like to reiterate that we doing what must be done to have full immigration services up," she wrote, before adding moments later: "you can never please everyone. We appreciate being held accountable as we strive to serve all Kenyans fairly."
Price said that airport officials set up a makeshift terminal in the cargo area, where nearly two dozen immigration officials lined up to stamp passports.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.