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Capturing Horror of Embassy Blasts

August 15, 1998

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ At 10:39:20 a.m., Friday, Aug. 7, the University of Nairobi geology department detected a small tremor. Eight seconds later it registered another, this one with a 3.4 magnitude. They were not earthquakes.

The first was the shock from a hand grenade, the second the blast from a huge explosion. At virtually the same moment, 450 miles away, a single boom shattered the tranquility of the port city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

It had been a gray and chilly Friday in Nairobi, 5,496 feet above sea level and still gripped by the southern hemisphere’s winter. It was sunny and humid in Dar es Salaam. In both cities, thousands of people were at work or in the streets, shopping or running errands and looking forward to the weekend.

Suddenly, windows shattered. Chunks of concrete and twisted steel rained down. Nostrils burned with fire and smoke. Under the debris, voices cried out.

And in the areas that took the brunt of the bombs, there was silence. The silence of the dead.

In both cities, 257 people were dead; 5,500-plus were injured.

Moments earlier, about 10:35 a.m., Kenyan security guards at the front of the U.S. Embassy had stopped five men in a truck at the parking lot entrance. Go around the back, guard Joash Okindo told them, to the rear parking lot.

Julius Koiyet, a preacher, was waiting to board a bus outside the embassy when he heard a blast. A blowout, he thought. Then people started running from the embassy.

He headed toward the back of the building and saw a yellow van with four men in it driving into the parking lot. A man jumped from the van and opened fire.

``I thought it was a normal bank robbery,″ he said. ``The man saw that I was not afraid, and he fired at me on the shoulder and I fell down.″

The men in the van then threw a tin container about a foot high toward the embassy. It exploded. Two more cylinders followed, he said.

Okindo, the security guard, saw the attackers jump from the truck and open fire with automatic rifles. They shot a guard and hurled a grenade. At least one Marine returned fire.

At his desk on the third floor near the front of the embassy, Kevin Richardson, 43, of Hackensack, N.J., heard an explosion. He went to the window to take a look.

``I just thought another demonstration was going on,″ said Richardson, the embassy refugee officer. From the window, ``I could see some of the Kenyan employees of the embassy who just happened to be outside, and they were running.″

At the six-story Ufundi Cooperative House next door, Sammy Ng’ang’a, a 48-year-old scrap metal dealer, had dropped by to see a friend. He heard a noise and saw people rush to windows facing the embassy to see what was happening.

It was the natural thing to do, but it put a lot of people in front of a lot of glass.

Then came ``a very, very loud explosion,″ Richardson said. ``The building started to shake and the lights went out and I hit the floor.″

Richardson heard his assistant, Immy Rose Lassiter, shouting: ``Are you OK? Are you OK? What happened? What should we do?″ Richardson did what he learned in embassy bomb and fire drills _ he locked his safe and left.

``It was fairly dark,″ he said, ``so we had to feel our way along the walls to get out.″

They made their way to the elevator. ``One elevator door was shut,″ he said. ``The other had sprung open, and you could see lights and smoke coming out of the shaft.″

U.S. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell had just finished a press conference with Kenya’s Minister of Trade Joseph Kamotho and was in his office on the 18th floor of the 22-story Cooperative Bank building when she heard the explosion. For a moment, she thought it must be from construction.

Next thing she knew, she said, ``I was sitting and had my hands over my head, which was why I had cuts on my hand.″

Two floors below, a table propelled by the blast slammed into John Mukuru. ``I saw some objects falling, falling. ... I heard people screaming. ... Then I tried to get out of the office.″

All communication between the embassy and the outside world was cut.

Hundreds of miles away in Dar es Salaam, Tanzanian Ibrahim Pamba walked out of the U.S. Embassy and saw a blue tanker truck maneuvering to turn on Laibon Road.

``There was nothing suspicious,″ Pamba said. ``It was an ordinary day.″

Minutes later, an explosion stopped embassy clocks at 10:39 a.m.

Acting Ambassador John Lange was in his office with eight other people when the windows shattered, cutting several of them with flying glass. At the guard house at the front gate, Valentine Katunda of the Ultimate Security company was buried alive.

At Nairobi Hospital, the city’s largest, administrator Mike Sheldon was in his office when he heard an explosion.

``We thought it was an earthquake, thought the roof in surgery had caved in,″ he said. ``Then word got back that it was a bomb. We went down to casualty to implement our major disaster plan.″

The blast interrupted a meeting three miles from the embassy, in the office of Nairobi Provincial Police Chief Isaac Muthuri. He rushed outside when he heard the blast.

``I saw smoke and we realized there was something serious and we rushed to the scene,″ he said.

Help was on the way, but people at the scene already were helping one another.

Bernard Njoroge Mirangi, a 47-year-old railway laborer, had been trying to cash a check on the ground floor of the Cooperative Bank when he was hit in the head by a toppling beam. He got up, kicked out a glass window and escaped. But he immediately went back inside to help two women get out.

``There was thick smoke outside and metal structures were falling,″ he said. ``I carried one woman on my shoulders and held the other by the hand.″

Inside the embassy, Richardson and Lassiter held hands as they groped their way down a stairway.

``There was a lot of smoke and other smells we couldn’t identify. Some of the emergency lights had come on. There was a large amount of debris on the stairways,″ Richardson said. ``By that time, there were people from other floors entering the stairway, trying to get out of the building.″

At the Cooperative Bank, Mukuru also was trying to get down stairs.

``People got there and were stuck, with blood all over,″ he said. ``I had blood all over. I was feeling that my head is not there.″

Richardson and Lassiter emerged from the embassy and checked each other to be sure they were OK.

``Just like everybody else, we were all covered with dust and smoke,″ Richardson said. ``Crowds were coming toward the embassy from all over. ... I could see fire coming from the back of the building and people running around, some quite injured.″

Ambassador Bushnell, her lower lip cut badly enough to need stitches, doesn’t know whether she lost consciousness when the blast hit.

``There was debris coming all over, and the clinking and the clanging, and then all of a sudden it was silent.″ she said. ``My first thought was, is the building going to collapse and aye, aye, aye, we’re on the 18th floor.″

With a colleague who was bleeding profusely, she made it to the stairs and started walking.

``As we went down the stairs, every door from hallway into stairwell had been blown in. So, we were walking over doors. There was blood everywhere. Now and again you would find a shoe. ... As we got further and further down, there was much more smoke.

``By the time we got probably to the third floor, second floor, people were very pressed together. I have to say it was not a stampede and it was not a panic. People were taking care of one another. Everybody was bleeding ... and the bannister was wet with blood.″

About 10:45 a.m., the first wave of casualties arrived at Nairobi Hospital. ``There must have been at least 100,″ Sheldon says.

Abraham Muthogo Kamau, a 28-year-old corporate analyst at the Cooperative Bank, was among them, driven to the hospital by a passer-by. He had glass cuts all over his body, shards embedded on the left side of his head and in his left knee. His shirt, tie and trousers were shreds.

He said an American doctor at the hospital was treating two injured Americans, but not the Kenyan victims.

``All he cared about was the Americans,″ Kamau said. ``It’s not fair. Human life is human life _ Kenyan life or American life. ... It’s changed my attitude towards Americans.″

Sheldon disputed the claim that Americans were being favored by doctors, explaining that medical personnel concentrated first on the most seriously injured, among whom were two Americans.

About this time in Dar es Salaam, acting ambassador Lange reached the U.S. Marine post.

``Amazingly ... the phones were still working,″ he said, ``so I quickly called the State Department Operations Center and told them there was a huge explosion in the embassy.″

Bleeding from her head, embassy employee Laurel McMullen helped another woman down the stairs. ``I remember immediately thinking, `We have been bombed,‴ she said.

Jim Owens, an American visiting the embassy, saw the guard house was burning. Elizabeth Mary Slater, an embassy employee, saw ``just twisted, contorted metal.″

Owens and McMullen both described popping noises.

``The marines thought it was gunfire ... and kept shouting `get down, get down’,″ said Owens.

Later, they found out the noise was burning tires exploding. At least 22 vehicles parked outside were destroyed.

Tanzanian police, embassy security, extra guards from Ultimate Security all arrived on the scene. Dozens were there by the time McMullen emerged from the building.

Employees waited for word from embassy security and then climbed over the 6-foot-high exterior wall of the compound with the help of a ladder.

The wounded and ultimately the dead also passed over the wall. Security company cars, police, civilian cars, public minibuses known as Dala Dalas, helped carry wounded to the hospital.

It was 11:30 a.m. when the first casualties began arriving at state-owned Muhimbili hospital in Dar es Salaam. Katunda was the only one of the four guards at the front entrance to survive.

Embassy staff in Nairobi, meanwhile, contacted the State Department Operations Center to tell them about the explosion and were told that they had just heard from the embassy in Dar es Salaam about a similar blast.

Within an hour after the explosion in Nairobi, the crowd around the embassy had grown to thousands.

``Many people were trying to dig through rubble with their bare hands, trying to help people trapped inside,″ Richardson said. ``There were just a whole lot of rescue people, embassy people and others going floor by floor to check for people who could not get out on their own.″

Marines, Kenyan police, soldiers and Red Cross workers tried to control the crowds, pushing onlookers away so ambulances and fire trucks could move freely.

Richardson went to the undamaged U.S. Agency for International Development building, where he started compiling a list of staff and employees to check who was missing.

About 1:30 p.m., at the request of the American Embassy, a British Army convoy of about 35 personnel arrived to help. They found broken glass everywhere, tiles off roofs and about 10,000 Kenyans standing around watching. The adjacent Ufundi building was a frenzy of people digging and pulling things out.

``Total chaos really,″ Capt. Rhyl Jones, commander of the British contingent, recalled of the scene. ``Devastation and chaos. This was bigger than anything I’ve seen.″

A half-dozen Marines were among about 20 Americans at the embassy. Some British and American engineers and their teams were digging, some were searching for a missing Marine.

``A lot of them, I think, had been in the building when the bomb went off, and they were pretty well shocked,″ said Staff Sgt. Eddie Elms. ``But I think they were more concerned about a second attack on the building, and just putting up a cordon around the building to ensure security.″

After putting men at the perimeter and checking the building to make sure it wouldn’t collapse, Jones sent others inside to check for survivors. In the hours ahead, they found two survivors and 20 to 25 bodies.

About 3:30 p.m., Richardson went to the Nairobi city morgue. ``After showing my embassy badge, I was escorted to the only criminal pathologist in Kenya, who was trying to organize what was going on. And at the same time, he told me there were already 54 dead. Of course, the number went much higher. I was able to identify one official American.

``As it turned out, there were two other people associated with the embassy who were there, although I was not immediately able to recognize them. They were bringing in bodies in really bad shape. After 20 minutes there ... I realized I was not as tough as I thought I was, and so I left.″

All that afternoon, rescue work also proceeded in Dar es Salaam. By 4:40 p.m., all the dead and wounded were evacuated from the embassy there, spokesman Dudley Simms said.

That night, Richardson couldn’t sleep. Instead, he went from hospital to hospital, searching for the missing.

``We really didn’t find anybody,″ he said, ``because it was just too chaotic at the hospital.″

Shortly after daybreak Saturday, Red Cross spokeswoman Nina Galbe saw a flurry of activity at the bomb site in Nairobi.

``I remember the sound of all these axes, metal against stone, like a hacking, the clinking _ at the same time it was pitiful,″ Galbe said. ``It was pitiful because they could do so little. And then there was an anger as well because there was no coordination at all.

``Everyone was just tearing and pulling and pushing at this stone monster that would not be tamed or broken.″

The cranes were standing by idly, she said, because nobody knew how to use them.

In the early morning hours before Galbe had arrived, rescuers had reached a man lying on a table. They cut the table from underneath, thinking it would then fall so they could pull him out.

``Instead, what happened was, of course, that the rubble on top of him fell down as well and he was crushed,″ Galbe said.

As the morning wore on, rescuers found another survivor. When they called for a stretcher, hopes rose. Shortly afterward, they called for a stethoscope. The man was dead.

``These were two people who were alive, who with more sophisticated tools might have been clearly saved,″ Galbe said.

Shortly after 2 p.m., an Israeli search-and-rescue team _ 181 men and women and eight sniffer dogs _ arrived and took charge. They saw two cranes, a bulldozer and a backhoe standing by. Soldiers, police officers and civilians were picking over the rubble, many with their bare hands.

The Israelis used a bulldozer to clear debris blocking the path behind the Ufundi building. They looked over the ruins and put the cranes to work, digging into the rubble, calling for survivors.

Ng’ang’a, the scrap metal dealer, replied. So did Rose Wanjiku Irungu, a 36-year-old employee of the Cooperative Bank.

About 10:30 p.m., the Israelis reached Ng’ang’a.

``They are coming for you next,″ he called to Rose. He was rushed to Nairobi Hospital with a broken leg and deep gashes on his head.

In Uhuru (Freedom) Park, people streamed to a Red Cross center to donate blood. Several preachers swayed and sang on a makeshift platform in the park, joined by about 4,000 men, women and children. Their songs ranged from the exultant to the mournful in memory of those killed in the blast. Their shabby clothes marked them as the urban poor.

At 3 p.m. Sunday, rescuers heard Rose speak. Their digging took on a new urgency.

During the afternoon, a 62-member rescue squad from the Washington suburb of Fairfax Country, Va., arrived with four search dogs. So did a 10-man French team with two dogs. FBI and other U.S. investigators began to trickle in.

It was Tuesday afternoon when Charles Kamuti, 31, went to the city morgue, looking for his younger brother, Lawrence, an assistant pharmacist in the Cooperative Bank building. A friend said Lawrence, 29, had run to the street after hearing the grenade.

And it was Tuesday afternoon when Rose’s rescue seemed near. Two search dogs veered toward a hole in the debris of the Ufundi building, now shrunken by more than two-thirds, and barked excitedly.

Shoulder to shoulder, Kenyans and Israelis used shovels, pickaxes and their hands. Finally, they reached a body. It wasn’t Rose.

Shortly after noon on Wednesday, a bulldozer pried the blackened, shredded wreckage of a vehicle off the Nairobi embassy wall, where it was plastered by the force of the blast. There was speculation it might have carried the explosives.

At about 2:30 p.m., the Israelis called for silence and dropped a microphone deep into the ruins in hopes of picking up some sound from Rose.

It was 3 a.m. Thursday by the time rescuers wearily removed the last layers of debris from the one victim the world hoped might be saved.

They slipped her broken body into a white plastic bag and drove it to the morgue. Rose had died less than 24 hours before they reached her, rescuers said.

Sniffer dogs made one last check at 10 a.m. Nothing. The Israeli commander declared the search for survivors over.

It wasn’t until about 3 p.m. Friday that the body of Kamuti’s brother was identified from fingerprints. But nine unidentified bodies remained in cold storage at morgues and seven families have filed reports with the Red Cross saying relatives are missing.

Today, dwarfed by the bombed U.S. Embassy and a blackened office tower, a small, flower-covered pyramid of concrete rubble has become a memorial to the dead and a magnet for the grief of a nation.

Amid the bouquets of roses and colored ribbons, someone has placed a hand-lettered sign, summing up the sorrow that has enveloped this deeply religious east African country. Written in red ink, it says:

``Cry Kenya″

``Pray Kenya″

``God Heal Kenya″

There is no memorial at the now abandoned U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam. Just rows of barbed wire and U.S. Marines with assault rifles who keep curious onlookers away.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Associated Press reporter Dianna Cahn in Dar es Salaam contributed to this report.

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