Deseret News exclusive: Caught in the crossfire, a Utah family's harrowing firsthand account of the Kenyan mall massacre
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
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.
We hunkered down between cars again, and soon saw a few Kenyan maintenance workers looking out from a door in the wall to our left. We sprinted toward the door, but by the time we got there they had gone back in and closed it. I can't remember if they opened it again or we pushed our way in, but we finally made it inside and closed the door behind us.
Four hours in a closet
It was a maintenance closet, maybe 10'x10', the far wall of which was the exterior foundation of the building. Along the far wall, there was a window that looked out onto the main street that runs along the front of the mall. The window extended down from the ceiling maybe 20" and ran the width of the wall. Very fortunately the window was covered with decorative metal louvers so we could not be seen from the street, however the metal was thin and we were exposed to the heavy gunfire that was also going on in the street. A lot of this gunfire was from the terrorists going into the main mall entrance past Urban Burger and into the mall through the Art Caffe patio. Urban Burger was directly above the closet we were in. Some gunmen stayed outside for some period of time, shooting in the parking lot at the front of the mall.
Once inside the closet, Patty, the kids and the Kenyan lady sat against the exterior wall so that the bullets would go over them if any came in through the metal louvers of the window. The maintenance guys opened the door again a little and looked out into the parking garage, while I stood behind it and tried to look out the thin crack between the door and the door frame. I couldn't see anything and told them we had to close the door, at which point one of the four guys made a run for it with unknown results.
We closed the door and I was worried about gunmen seeing the closet and coming in, so I stood with my back to the door while I looked around for something with which to secure it closed. It had a latch and padlock on the outside only, no latch or handle on the inside. I didn't see anything in the room that would work well to keep it closed. There were some small hatchets and picks on the floor, so I jammed a few of those in the spaces between the door and the doorframe to try to wedge the door shut. I then handed the remaining ones to the maintenance workers so we could at least take some swings at anyone who forced their way in. They looked at me like they couldn't quite figure out what we were all so worked up about and set the tools down. They thought it was a robbery that would finish up soon and sat down to talk amongst themselves.
Given the occasional robberies that happen in Nairobi their reaction was understandable, but the amount of gunfire in multiple locations meant it was clearly more than a robbery. The Kenyan woman and I whispered through the gunfire that the attackers were terrorists and they needed to quiet down. Finally they seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation and took the hatchets and picks back up and held them ready in their hands as they sat waiting.
I still hadn't found anything good to jam to keep the door closed. I also realized the door was hollow wood. I quickly moved away from it and then realized that Patty, the kids and the Kenyan lady were sitting opposite the door where they were also exposed to possible gunfire through the door. Fortunately, to my right, against the wall opposite the louvered window, there was a big heavy wood table and against the next wall over, there was a big set of metal shelves. This left a 3X4 foot space in the corner between the table and the shelves. There were about 20 pieces of 1" plywood leaning up in that corner, about 1-1/2 feet wide by 3-1/2 feet high.
Patty, the kids and the Kenyan woman moved away from the exterior wall and into that corner between the shelves and the table. They were now across from the exterior window with the metal louvers and were vulnerable to the bullets that could come through the window from the street. There were some big tool boxes and boxes of metal plumbing fittings on the floor, so I put them on the shelves to fill in the spaces in hopes of blocking any bullets that might come through the window.
There was a large, heavy, metal door leaning against a wall, and one of the workers helped me carry it over and prop it up perpendicular to the end of the shelves to extend the cover against shots that could come in from the street.
As I tried to settle in for cover I realized that the walls of the corner where Patty and the kids now sat were drywall, not concrete as I had previously thought, and wouldn't stop bullets coming from the parking garage. So Patty, our son and I took the sheets of plywood from the corner and leaned them up 4-5 deep against the drywall, knowing that they were unlikely to totally stop any bullets but would at least slow them and dissipate their energy. Patty and the kids then got down in this semi-fortified space with the Kenyan lady. I stayed low on the floor and crawled around looking for something to better secure the door with. Behind a cabinet there was a long metal pry bar that was the right length to jam between a big pile of tile and the door. The bar in place, we sat as silently as we could and just waited.
Fortunately, we were wrong
Starting at about 12:45 (15 minutes or so into the attack) and throughout the time we were in the closet, Patty and I were texting friends employed at the U.S. Embassy and the FBI in Nairobi. We wanted them to know exactly where we were and that our whole family was there. They asked for information on the location of the shooters and their movements. We provided what we could but all we had to go on was the sound of the gunfire as it shifted around the different areas of the mall and grounds. We also told them that we were going to stay hidden and quiet until we got word from somebody on the outside that it was safe to leave. Although we were set on this, we're glad we didn't stick to it or we might have been in there for two days instead of four hours.
We sat in the closet as the gunfire subsided, grew and subsided again. We couldn't really tell, but after about two hours the Kenyan military and an anti-terrorism task force that is predominantly made up of men of Indian descent had managed to engage and contain most of the terrorists to restricted parts of the mall. After that, the shooting was only occasional, and only a round or two at a time.
After about three hours, the husband of the Kenyan lady told her via text that as soon as they were sure they could get in and out of the parking garage without encountering terrorists he would get some members of the anti-terrorism force to accompany him in to find us and lead us out. The Kenyan lady assured us that her husband had good connections with this group and could make it happen. It sounded pretty preposterous so we really just blew it off as wishful thinking.
Fortunately, we were wrong. As we neared the four hour mark of waiting in silence, we heard someone yelling and pounding on our door. We were startled, to say the least, and waited silently for them to go away, believing it had to be terrorists. The Kenyan lady recognized her husband's voice, so we threw open the door and found that he was accompanied by an Indian man, and both were armed with handguns. We were still very unsure about following them out because we had no idea if the coast was clear but we figured we'd better take our chances at that point.
We ran crouching through the parking garage to the ramp opposite the one we drove in on and then up the ramp to get out of the building. We then ran down an alley and past a large group of armed men in tactical gear, who appeared to be from various Kenyan and foreign forces, and were covering the front and side of the building. Out on the main street, we were surprised to run through a massive crowd of press people and cameramen, and then a big crowd of bystanders. We wondered why they were all so close as there was still occasional gunfire. We just wanted to get as far away as possible.
As soon as we were out, our phones lit up because the cameras had captured us running out and friends were texting to say they saw us on the live coverage. We were amazed that our cell phone batteries had lasted the whole time. Mine died minutes after we were out. I'd also been texting my employer while we were in the closet and they had arranged for a car to pick us up, but it ended up stuck somewhere on the other side of the mall in traffic. Fortunately a friend jumped in her car when she heard we were out and rushed down to pick us up so that we only ended up waiting on the street for maybe 20 minutes before we were on our way home. Our car is still in the parking garage and we are unsure of its condition given the attack and the ensuing fire a day or two later.
We were especially lucky and blessed because the kids did not see bodies or carnage. There was nothing to see along the route we took to run away from the closet and out of the parking garage. There was blood on the sidewalk and down the street as we ran out, but the kids didn't notice. The kids also were spared a large part of the mental anguish because we told them the whole time it was a robbery, and that if anyone found us in the closet we would just give them our items of value and they would leave us alone. They figured out it was a terrorist attack about an hour before we were rescued due to the texts and whispering back and forth about Christians being singled out from Muslims and a possible rescue. The final hour ended up being very traumatic for them, but fortunately the gunfire was just occasional by that point.
Unfortunately there were a number of casualties amongst people that our family knows, which has been difficult for the kids. A girl in our son's class that also rides the kids' school bus was wounded, and her father was killed. A student a year younger than our son was wounded and his mother was killed. A student that the kids know from a different school was shot and severely wounded, and his mother and a sibling were unaccounted for as of the last time we received news. The mother of a girl on our son's swim team was killed. There were quite a number of girls from our son's grade that were in the mall for a surprise birthday party. Two of them were held hostage but somehow got out. None of the others were held or injured.
This experience has been very difficult, and although we feel that we will recover from the trauma with time, we worry about the impact on our children. We struggle to deal with the emotions and sometimes the lack of emotion. I struggle to overcome the anger. We are deeply saddened by the pain, grief and loss that so many are dealing with. Our hearts ache for them.
Above all we are grateful for our families, our loved ones and our faith. It has been comforting to hear from so many and know that we are in their thoughts and prayers. In the end, all that matters is holding tight to our families and our loved ones, and the hope and faith that we, along with so many others, can move forward and find peace.
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