I didn’t set fire to the airport, declares Pattni

Saturday August 10 2013

Smoke billows from the arrivals unit of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport August 7, 2013. Goldenberg architect Kamlesh Pattni has distanced himself from the Wednesday airport fire which destroyed property worth millions of shillings and left thousands of travellers stranded. PHOTO/ZADOCK ANGIRA

Smoke billows from the arrivals unit of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport August 7, 2013. Goldenberg architect Kamlesh Pattni has distanced himself from the Wednesday airport fire which destroyed property worth millions of shillings and left thousands of travellers stranded. PHOTO/ZADOCK ANGIRA  

By ANDREW TEYIE [email protected] AND EMEKA-MAYAKA GEKARA [email protected]

Goldenberg architect Kamlesh Pattni has distanced himself from the Wednesday airport fire which destroyed property worth millions of shillings and left thousands of travellers stranded.

Mr Pattni, who lays claim to duty free shops which were demolished at the airport only a week before the dawn blaze, has become a focus of investigations into the fire which forced the closure of the region’s travel hub for hours.

But speaking to the Sunday Nation on Saturday, the controversial businessman insisted he was innocent.

“I have nothing to do with the evil act. I was absolutely not involved in destruction of the property,” he said.

In his first interview since the incident, Mr Pattni described reports linking him to the fire as “malicious and unfortunate”.

“The government has said that it is investigating the matter. I don’t want to be dragged into any speculation. Let us all be patient and wait for the truth. The truth shall be known,” he said.

The man behind the biggest con in the nation’s history—the Goldenberg scandal—spoke as it emerged that a team of elite detectives picked to investigate the cause of the fire were looking into smuggling cartels that operate within two VIP lounges belonging to Mr Pattni.

The inquiries seek to establish whether there was any link between these and the fire which gutted the international arrivals section of the airport and dealt a blow to Nairobi’s standing as one of three major air travel hubs in Africa alongside Johannesburg and Addis Ababa.

Suspicions of arson

The suspicions of arson are driven by assessments of investigators who found that the fire spread so fast that it can only have been fuelled by inflammable material.

The Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) on August 1 forcibly took over duty free shops belonging to Diplomatic Duty Free Limited and Kenya Duty Free, two firms associated with Mr Pattni, following the expiry of their lease.

But in a major lapse, the security passes of many of the members of staff who worked at the shops were not withdrawn.

Saturday, operations at the airport were gradually returning to normal amid reports that President Kenyatta had taken personal charge of the crisis and ordered speedy investigations by all agencies concerned.

Top government officials, including Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed and Transport Secretary Michael Kamau, together with US Ambassador Robert Godec, visited the airport to assess the damage and recovery progress.

It emerged that the government is making arrangements to procure a prefabricated structure to serve as a temporary arrivals terminal.

On the investigations front, detectives told the Sunday Nation that unknown people have freely been doing business in the two VIP lounges associated with Mr Pattni before being sneaked out by police and immigration officers who have unlimited security access to facilities at JKIA.

The two VIP lounges are situated near the airside and Mr Pattni has another office adjacent to the immigration office giving his staff unfettered access to key installations.

The investigators believe that the two VIP lounges are used for tax evasion, smuggling of humans and contraband.

In May this year, the investigators said security officers at JKIA intercepted 134 strangers who were using the VIP lounges for unspecified business.

The arrest of the individuals resulted in the interdiction of a senior immigration official and the re-deployment of four others to Nyayo House headquarters.

Four anti-terrorism officers with unlimited security access who were discovered to have been negligent were transferred from the airport.

“The problem with JKIA is that there are too many interests. We have made various security recommendations which have been overruled by the JKIA management,” said one of the officers who spoke to the Sunday Nation.

Smugglers

According to the officials, the cartels and smuggling rings are entrenched and have key people placed in all areas of the airport.

“People sometimes come through these lounges from flights. They are shielded from the glare of the public and travel documents processed by privileged officers before they are whisked away by police and immigration officers. It is a tight-knit cartel that requires political will to crack,” said the officers.

Investigaters are also trying to establish the link between immigration officers and the fire that started in their offices.

According to officers, when the fire started in the immigration offices, it was small. However, it quickly spread through the ceiling of the airport making it unmanageable.

First responders to the fire were taken aback by the intensity with which flames licked their way around the building.

They said they had initially assessed it as a small blaze—a description that matches with passengers’ accounts who happened to be at the section at the time—but were amazed at how quickly it spread.

“The manner in which a fire manifests itself and the cause are very different. How you first see the fire and what it turns out to be are very different,” said an investigator who was among the first people at the scene.

The fire also consumed the tunnels linking arrival lounges and departure areas in Units 1 and 2. The section is sound-proofed to keep the noise of aircrafts landing and taking off from passengers and staff at the airport and the fire appears to have spread fast through the vents that supply air into the building.

Investigators say they are also looking at the theory that accelerants were used to ensure that the fire spread quickly and damage would be extensive.

“Accelerant substances, such as petroleum distillates or other chemicals that may be used as catalysts are very useful in spreading an intentionally set fire,” they said.

Airport personnel at the site on Wednesday morning say that it quickly became obvious that evacuation was necessary to avert human casualties. In addition, aircraft that were near buildings were moved further afield and jet fuel hydrants shut to avert an even bigger disaster.

“We are open to all possible theories including arson and sabotage,” said a senior investigator.

A taxi driver who operates at JKIA recalls that some visitors he had ferried just before the fire broke out complained of smoke.

“As I was driving them to town they complained that while checking out they could smell smoke in the arrivals lounge. Anyway, I did not take them seriously.”

According to a situation brief given to President Kenyatta and seen by the Sunday Nation, the fire broke out at around 4.45 am.

Immediate response

“Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) firemen responded immediately and attempted to put out the blaze using handheld fire extinguishers. At 5.15 am, it was realised that the fire was getting out of control and firefighters deployed firefighting engines,” says the report.

According to the report, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the events, after 15 minutes they decided to evacuate JKIA as the fire spread to the baggage handling system, customs office and commercial areas of international arrivals. President Kenyatta has since ruled out terrorism as the cause of the fire.

The report also states that the fire spread to KAA offices, airlines offices, customer service and the anti-narcotics unit offices.

“At 6am, the roof of the international arrivals area collapsed as the fire spread to unit 1 and 2 through the passenger tunnels.

“At 7am all the airplanes had been removed to remote stands and reinforcements called in from the Kenya Defence Force units at Embakasi and Eastleigh air bases, Kenya Pipeline, KWS, Nairobi County fire brigade, Mavoko, NYS, G4S and KK Security,” states the report.

The report further says that the KAA faced challenges in putting out the fire because the response units were uncoordinated.

“All vital installations, including emergency operations command centre, Safaricom mast, airport security offices and police offices were housed in one building which happened to be the centre of the fire.”

According to the report, 12 people were injured in the melee. Among those injured were two KAA fire marshalls. One fractured his leg and was admitted at Mater Hospital while the other was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning and discharged. The rest were also treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.