Over the weekend, al-Shabab, an armed Islamic extremist group, stormed the high-end Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 67 people. On Saturday, Beatrice Thairu's day began with breakfast with her sister at Java, a popular coffee shop on the mall's top floor. It ended with Thairu surviving the attack, cowering under a table in the mall’s now destroyed parking lot.
This is Thairu’s story, as told to America Tonight producer Amy Walters.
Screaming and running
I went to breakfast with my sister at Java, upstairs in the food court. We heard loud bangs from the lower food court. At first, we thought it was a robbery or something. We didn’t know what it was, so we just stayed there. Then, we started noticing the sounds getting closer. A lot of people were screaming, and running out of the building and so we started to run out of the building also. We ran out to the parking lot.
There was a cooking fair going on there with tables set up. We went completely to the end of the parking lot, trying to get out, but we found ourselves stuck in the corner. I told my sister that if we ran into the corner we would be trapped. We were trying to think of where to run to. We were in the process of figuring out what to do next when the gunman caught up with us.
They were shooting, firing and throwing grenades. The first grenade that went off killed quite a lot of us. My sister was hit by the grenade. I got a few shrapnels. We were quite close to them, maybe a couple of feet away. We were underneath one of the tables. At that time, everyone was trying to scramble and duck, but no one could hide from them. They kept shooting indiscriminately -- at anyone.
Left with the dead
I thought there were two of them. They were wearing “Arafat” kaftans on their head, holding guns with bullets. One of the gentlemen was chanting all this propaganda about Somalia and killing women and children. I couldn't understand everything. It was part in English, part in Somali. That is when I realized this was a terror attack. I did hear one of the gunmen ask one of the women, not “Are you Muslim?” but, “Are you Somalian?” I heard him ask her to get out of there. He must have identified her by her clothing.
At that point, they started spraying bullets. My sister was hit. We were laying on people who had passed on, had expired. We were trying to shield ourselves. It lasted about 45 minutes.
At some point, the firing, bombing, the grenade sounds were intensifying on the inside of the mall. The shooters ended up going back inside the building. We thought they were still there though, and we kept ourselves hidden. A little while later, an Asian gentleman – I think he was a reservist - came by. He asked anyone who could walk to follow him. My sister couldn't walk, so we stayed. We were left with the dead and the really injured.
'Can you trust me?'
Eventually, a European man came. From the way he was conducting himself, I thought he had some military background. He came and checked on every single person. He came and asked about us. Then, he said he would walk my sister. He said he will try to help us.
We ended up standing. He wanted us to go back into the building. I kept telling him, “How can we go back into the building? All the gunfire.” He said, “Can you trust me?” I said, “Yes.” I knew if we stayed there, we were dead. We had nothing to lose. I followed him out.
We got into the building. More gunfire broke out. At some point, he said, “Now or never. We have to make it out now.” We ran to the parking lot, climbed over the wall of Java and crawled across the restaurant floor to the kitchen. He told us to keep quiet. He led us down a stairway where we found a lot of reservists and police waiting for us.
I think it was around 2:30 p.m. by then. We had just finished breakfast when it all started, around 11:45 a.m.
They put us in an ambulance to one of the hospitals, M.P. Shah. The hospital was overwhelmed. My family decided to move us to another hospital, Agha Kahn. My sister had two bullets in her. One is still inside. It had grazed her lung and it had filled with blood. She also had deep wounds from the grenade. I was lucky; I had a lot of cuts on my back and I had trouble breathing from the stampede.
'They took too long'
My sister, she’s fine. She’s stable. She had surgery the day before yesterday. They still want to see the other bullet. They are still pulling out the debris from the shrapnel inside her, but she’s much better.
I have watched the news. I was told I should not watch too much news. I have not been able to sleep, but I’m trying to keep tabs on what’s happening, if any more survivors have been found. I believe a lot of people died that day. I believe a number of people were sitting in the mall.
I wish the response was a bit quicker. For a long time, no one came. What I think really helped, was the police reservists and civilian population who were armed, who came out to help. They were better prepared, compared to the police. They were there until the Kenya defense force came in. They took too long. They could have come quicker.
Also, something that amazed me: The people who volunteer, the good Samaritans, they mobilized, in terms of rescuing, in terms of transport, helping those who were injured. They came out in such big, big numbers. It all seems very well organized and coordinated. In terms of the rescue effort, that played a huge, huge role. I don’t know what we would have done without the help of those strangers. They were giving food and water. They had blocked the street for ambulances. They did what they could, more than the local police.
'We prayed as much as we could'
I think this thing was too huge or too big for the humanity at that time. Because of the effort of private citizens, I don’t know what would have happened. I think, in my personal opinion, it has brought Kenyans together. We were quite divided before because of tribe and political affiliation, and all those people put those issues aside. It didn't matter what color, what religion you are. Even the Muslims came out in numbers, a lot of them came out in numbers saying, “It is not us. They are evil people, they are not us. It is not the God we worship.” I think, just hearing that, gives a sense of comfort and peace.
I was very angry in the beginning. I thought it was certain people, a certain religion. It was not a community, or a religion. It is just a few people.
During those hours... where they were holding us hostage, we prayed, and did everything. We prayed as much as we could. At some point, we said our goodbyes. We were actually waiting to die. What I remember is... in that chaos… I did feel a sense of peace and clarity. After we accepted the fact that we were not making it out of there alive, I still felt God's presence there. I’m coming to realize that we go about our lives, with all these issues: money, work problems, stuff like that. When you’re faced with such a situation, all that stuff melts away. It’s about you and God.
Sometimes, I realize, we carry all this burden and it has no meaning. We take life so seriously, for nothing. We make small things so big. You know, that’s a lesson that I walked away with. Even in that chaos, I do believe in God. I’m not the overly religious type, I’m not. But I do now know, from that experience, there is a God.