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Deseret News exclusive: Caught in the crossfire, a Utah family's harrowing firsthand account of the Kenyan mall massacre

Chris Higbee

Deseret News

Greg Jackson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Sept. 27 2013 5:05 p.m. MDT

A woman who had been hiding during the gun battle runs for cover after armed police, seen behind, enter the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. Gunmen threw grenades and opened fire Saturday, killing at least 22 people in an attack targeting non-Muslims at an upscale mall in Kenya's capital that was hosting a children's day event, a Red Cross official and witnesses said. (AP Photo/Jonathan Kalan)

Jonathan Kalan, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Greg and Patty Jackson took a leap of faith a little under a year ago. After working as a business executive in Salt Lake City, Greg received an offer to move their family to Nairobi, Kenya.

"The first thing we thought of when we got the offer was our family's safety," Jackson said from his home in Nairobi. The Jacksons had spent time working overseas before and knew the challenges and the possible risks. Despite the possible concerns, the Jackson family felt excited and inspired to go. "After much thought, introspection, and prayer we felt like it was the right thing for our family."

The Jackson children, 13 and 9, a musician and budding swimmer, and a dancer and soccer player, were worried about leaving their friends, schools and local activities, but they saw it as an adventure, too. And while the whole family has kept their ties in Utah strong, they have grown to love Kenya and have built life-long relationships among those they've gotten to know at school, work and church, especially in light of recent events.

Faith is important to the Jacksons, and they've found tremendous fulfillment and happiness in their church in Nairobi. "Church in Nairobi is a great experience," Greg states. "Most of the members are Kenyan, with just a few from other countries. There are many opportunities to serve in the local community and grow together, while learning the culture and language of a truly beautiful people."

"We went back to Utah this past summer," Patty Jackson says. "And we loved being with family and friends. We were there for over a month but by the end of our visit, we were looking forward to the new school year and being back in Nairobi."

Little did the Jacksons know that two months after returning to Kenya from their vacation in Utah they would be caught up in one of the biggest terrorist attacks to occur in Africa since the synchronized 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, that killed a combined 224 people and injured more than 4,000.

Saturday, the Somali Islamist militant group Al Shabaab stormed the Westgate mall in suburban Nairobi, Kenya, taking as many as 71 lives and injuring 175. According to the Associated Press, witnesses say Al Shabaab targeted Kenyans, Westerners and Christians when they cornered people in stores and parking areas in the mall, asked specific questions about Islam that only adherents would know and allowed those who could answer successfully to leave while the rest were shot. The majority of Kenyans are Christian, with Muslims representing about 11 percent of the population.

At least 18 foreigners were killed, including six from England, as well as citizens from France, Canada, Trinidad, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China. To date, no American casualties have been reported, though numerous Americans were at the mall that day, including the Jacksons.

Greg Jackson agreed to share his family's experience in his own words in this Deseret News exclusive.

NAIROBI — It's not easy to tell our story to the public, but we feel like it's an important story to tell so that people back home know we're okay, but can also feel and be reminded of the impact that terrorism can have very close to home. We also would like to share our story because we feel very humbled and grateful, and truly blessed and lucky to have come through the experience without physical harm.

We spent nearly four hours in a utility closet in a basement parking garage at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last Saturday while the terrorist attack on the mall, that has been widely reported, took place. I've seen a little bit of news coverage and although the death toll is now at 71, there are presumably a lot more dead still inside the mall. It is located pretty close to our house, so even after escaping and returning home, we heard the ongoing gun battles and explosions as the Kenyan military together with international advisors worked to root the last few terrorists out of the mall over the last few days.

The few minutes that may have saved our lives

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