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Rose Inspired Rescuers’ Hope

August 12, 1998

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ Beneath four stories of corkscrewed steel and ragged chunks of concrete, Rose Wanjiku Irungu huddles in a hollow formed when a slab that could have crushed her instead came to rest leaning against a large, sturdy safe.

A miracle. Providence. Blessed survival amidst unspeakable carnage and destruction.

A terrorist bomb has blown apart her office building in an attack apparently aimed at the adjacent U.S. Embassy, yet she has escaped relatively unscathed.

But Rose’s haven is a trap that, in the end, proves to be her tomb.

And her death, determined only Wednesday when rescuers finally claw their way to her side, saddens not just her nation, desperate for a sign of hope after the deadly attack, but also a vast global community that kept vigil for Rose through news reports of her calls for help and tapping from the wreckage.

``In a way, she symbolized everyone they were digging for,″ says Red Cross spokesman John Sparrow. ``Everybody was Rose, everybody they could have pulled out alive.″


Rose, 36, mother of three and a clerk at the Ufundi Co-operative House, is at work Friday morning when the car bomb goes off. Ricocheting shockwaves lift the four-story building off its foundation and fling it into a heap.

Buried near Rose for the first 36 hours of her ordeal is Sammy Ng’ang’a, a scrap metal dealer who is visiting a business associate at Ufundi when the blast hits. He first knows she’s there early Saturday when she responds to Israeli rescuers calling for survivors.

From his hospital bed, Ng’ang’a recalls how Rose requests water and, when he tells her the men she hears are ``trying to save us,″ asks to be taken out first.

But the slabs of concrete braced with steel reinforcing bars that have saved her also prevent rescuers from reaching her. An Israeli trooper burrows through unstable rubble for hours to reach Ng’ang’a Saturday night. He can’t reach Rose.

As Ng’ang’a is pulled out, he calls out a farewell: ``They are coming for you next.″


Crews last hear Rose speak at 3 p.m. Sunday.

``Please take me to a hospital,″ she pleads. ``I need to get to a hospital.″

Bob Nasser, head of the Kenyan disaster team at the site, shouts encouragement. ``I just told her to hold on, we’re coming for her ... and she said, `Yes.′ But now she’s very weak.″

The Red Cross’s Sparrow reports, ``Her face is burned, but she’s talking. During the past two days, she developed a relationship with Ng’ang’a. ... They talked and kept each other’s spirits up.″

Trying to reach Rose and any other survivors, the Israelis swarm over the ruins with shrieking pneumatic drills, roaring blowtorches and growling bulldozers. Several times a day, the crew calls for silence and snakes a powerful microphone into the debris. Early Monday, the microphone detects a soft chink-chink, concrete tapping on concrete. Hopes soar it is Rose and she might still be saved.

But hours stretch on and nothing more is heard. Rescuers seek to reassure themselves.

``There’s just no sound coming back,″ Sparrow says. ``This happened before, when Rose went quiet and then spoke again. She may be asleep. She may be unconscious. So you live in hope.″


Nairobi’s death toll eventually reaches 247. Ten others are dead in the almost simultaneous bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania.

Dozens of Kenyans are still missing Monday, and no one has claimed Rose. No one knows who she is, or even her last name.

In those desperate hours, Rose’s husband, Lawrence Irungu, is frantically searching hospitals and morgues. He’s heard it was his wife’s building blown to pieces and has left their children and his photography studio in a small town northeast of Nairobi.

On Tuesday, he hears a woman named Rose is trapped _ and alive.

He races to the site.

``I’m hoping she’s still alive,″ Irungu says. ``That’s my prayers. ... I will stay here until I see the end of the operation.″

His snapshot of Rose shows a healthy woman with full, magenta-lipsticked lips drawn back in a Mona Lisa smile. Her shoulder-length hair, woven in dozens of tiny braids, is neatly pulled back from a round, shining face.


At 1:45 Tuesday afternoon, Rose’s rescue seems imminent. Two search dogs veer toward a hole in the heap of rubble, now shrunken by more than half, and bark excitedly.

``The throats of the Israeli team members went dry from excitement. Everyone was sure that the dogs had detected a sign of life,″ reports Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

But the hole is empty, and remaining tangles of concrete and girders beyond prevent further penetration.


At 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Israelis again call for silence.

The microphone goes deep but picks up no sound.

Twenty minutes later, a crane lifts the last slab barring access to Rose.

That exposes a mound of small rubble _ jumbled concrete, wire, cable and glass shards. Shoulder to shoulder, Kenyans and Israelis use shovels, pickaxes and hands to pluck it off bit by bit, exposing glimpses of a body.

At 3 a.m., they wearily remove the last layers of disaster from the one victim the world hoped might be saved. Rose’s body is slipped into a white plastic bag and driven to the morgue.

Rose died less than 24 hours before rescuers got to her, says Israeli Col. Udi Ben-Uri, commander of the rescue unit.

At 10 a.m., after dogs fail to find any sign of life, Ben-Uri declares the five-day search for survivors over.


The few feet that separated Rose and Sammy Ng’ang’a proved to be the difference between life and death.

``Rose was alive. Rose was responding. Rose was trying to contact us,″ says Farid Abdulkadir of the Kenya Red Cross. ``Rose. We had hope she would come out alive. But to today, it was only one person who came out alive and that is Ng’ang’a.

``We are sad. That is what kept us going, her sound, her trying to knock, her trying to communicate.″

Adds ambulance driver Elizabeth Mwangi, ``If we could have found Rose alive, it would have made us feel like we’d done something in the last few days.″

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