Kenya mall: Reporter outside, good friends inside
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The frantic phone call came from a close friend staying the weekend with my family: She was inside Nairobi’s most upscale mall and could hear gunshots. Her husband and 2-year-old daughter were inside too, but she didn’t know where. Where should she go?
Over the next several hours my role as a reporter collided with my concern for close friends in mortal danger. Reporters everywhere must separate their emotions from scenes of horror, but that’s a near-impossible task when your friends are facing attackers lobbing grenades and firing bullets.
Lyndsay called my wife two minutes after the first blast. It was 12:40 p.m. Saturday. Lyndsay, who was at a top-floor bookstore, initially thought it was a robbery. I rushed from home to the shopping center, a mile away. The scene was eerie: Gunmen had shot up cars at the mall’s entrance. Bodies lay hanging from the vehicles.
Volleys of gunfire and small explosions rang in my ears as I and others ducked behind cars.
Lyndsay’s husband, Nick, was with their daughter Julia in the downstairs cafe that appeared to be the initial attack point. He scooped up his toddler and ran. They ended up being pushed into a department store storage area and would stay there the next three hours.
Lyndsay was in a third-floor movie theater when she called me again. If gunmen found her and others, there was no escape, she said. A short while later the movie theater group — about 20 strangers related by terror — took an emergency exit up to the roof. Once there, they still had no escape.
“Jason, can you make sure the police know there are civilians on the roof?” she asked me. One person had stuck his head over the side and was greeted with a bullet, likely from police.
I told a police officer. He didn’t seem to care. The trick is telling the RIGHT police officer. I asked an Associated Press colleague who is Kenyan to tell a high-ranking police official he knows. “This isn’t strictly work-related,” I told him. “But it could save lives.”
I returned to my own work as a reporter, suppressing my fears that my friends could be killed. I snapped photos and took video. I interviewed a Dutch couple who had been close to the grenade blast. That night, Kenya’s president put the death toll at 39.
Nick either texted or called me. He was in the back room with Julia but unsure what to do. Did I have any information? I texted or called him several times but I feared each time that his phone would ring when gunmen were nearby.
Lyndsay called back. What should she do if the terrorists came onto the roof? There was nowhere to go. The drop to the next level down was perhaps 20 feet. Lyndsay is nearly eight months pregnant; jumping off the roof could have tragic consequences. Grab a cable and rappel off a satellite base, I said. She later told me that might not have worked.
“My honest thought was I was afraid I would be too scared to do it,” Lyndsay said. At the same time, she later said, it was good just to have someone to talk to.
Plainclothes cops helped Lyndsay and the roof hostages escape, but husband Nick and daughter Julia were still inside. Despite all the tension, Julia was mostly well behaved.
“She was amazing,” Nick said later. But during the short sprints “I think she could sense something was going on and was getting a bit upset. When we were hiding, she was really scared when we first got there, but she wasn’t crying or acting out. She was just kind of snuggling with me.”
Three hours after that first grenade exploded, Nick sprinted with Julia to safety. A news photographer snapped a photo of that sprint that appeared on dozens of news sites.
By then I had taken a break from my journalist’s role and was with Lyndsay. I saw Nick and Julia approach. I motioned to Lyndsay, whose eyes filled with tears. The three embraced.
As a reporter, I knew that not everyone’s day ended so well.
At nightfall, a distressed Kenyan man asked me for an update. He and his friends had been eating at an upstairs restaurant where heavy casualties were reported and he couldn’t reach them by phone. Maybe his friends were at the hospital, I suggested. No, he said. He had just visited all the hospitals. He had left the restaurant to wash his hands when the attack started.
“My friends texted me and said ‘Pray for us bro,’” the man told me, nearly in tears. It was the last time he had heard from them.