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

Our plan was to go to Urban Burger at the Westgate for lunch on Saturday after our daughter's soccer practice ended at noon. Patty and I swung by the school to pick her up with our son, and as we drove through the school parking lot to leave for the mall, we saw one of our daughter's close friends on the sidewalk with her mom. Patty suggested that we see if our daughter's friend could go to lunch with us. Instead of pulling up next to where they were on the sidewalk and rolling down the window, I parked and got out of the car to talk to the friend's mom. I don't know why. I even wondered to myself at the time why I was getting out of the car to talk to her. She was on Patty's side of the car and we could have just rolled down her window. But the three or four minutes that we were delayed while talking to her were critical, and if the delay didn't actually save our lives, it definitely kept us from reaching Urban Burger before the attack started.

Urban Burger is at the front of the mall right at the main entrance, facing out into the street that runs in front of the Westgate. Art Caffe is a few stores down, which also faces out into the street with a big patio. When the attack began, a group of attackers stormed up the stairs through the main entrance by Urban Burger and another group went into the mall through the Art Caffe patio, and many people were killed in those two restaurants.

Those few minutes spent talking to our daughter's friend's mom meant we were still in the parking garage of the mall when the attack started instead of already at Urban Burger where we would almost certainly have been injured or killed. While there was still heavy gunfire in the parking garage, we had the space and time to avoid it. Also very luckily, our daughter's friend's mother said they had been running around all week and wanted some family time, so she declined to let her daughter come with us. We are so glad she said no.

Hunkered down between the cars

So we left the friend and her mom, drove to the mall maybe 8 or 9 km away and down the ramp into the basement parking garage. We arrived at approximately 12:30 p.m.

Once down the ramp, I turned immediately left into the first row of parking spaces. Toward the end there was an open space so I backed into it. This put us in the corner of the parking garage with the ramp to our left and in front of us a little bit and our backs to the rest of the parking garage.

Within seconds of parking, and before we got out of the car, there were a couple of big explosions. It was hard to tell where. A few seconds later, a huge amount of gunfire erupted straight behind us on the far side of the parking garage.

In addition to the terrorists that had stormed the front of the mall, a group had come into the parking garage down the other ramp across the garage from us while another group was at the top of the ramp we had just driven down, staying outside for a while where they shot people in an outdoor parking area.

We were stunned for a few seconds when the explosions and gunfire started. We all got low in the car while Patty and I tried to look around to figure out what to do or where to go. Car alarms were going off, people were running all over and there was a lot of smoke. A lot of people were running up and out the ramp we had just driven down. My first thought was to speed back up that ramp out of the garage. I started the car to do so, but then quickly remembered the traffic that was always stacked up at that exit to the street. We'd never make it off the mall property, so I turned the engine back off.

Within seconds, we heard gunfire outside at the top of that same ramp and a lot of people began to run desperately back down it and into the parking garage. At that point I was certain it was a terrorist attack based on the volume of gunfire and the multiple locations it was coming from. We clearly needed to get out of our car and away from that ramp or we would be easy targets in our car if terrorists came running down the ramp into the garage behind the fleeing people.

We jumped out and hunkered down between the cars, stuck with gunfire at the top of the ramp off to our left, gunfire at the far end of the garage behind us, and also the sound of gunfire and grenades coming from the entrance to the mall that is located in the center of the parking garage where a wide walking ramp switchbacks up into the center of the main open atrium of the mall.

We turned from where we were crouched by our car and headed a couple of rows deeper into the parking garage, toward the gunfire at the other side of the garage but desperate to get away from the closer gunfire on the ramp we had driven down. Although they were scared out of their wits, I was amazed at how our children so calmly and smoothly ran with us, keeping low and quiet. At some point as we ran we grabbed a Kenyan lady who was alone and frightened.

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