NAIROBI, Kenya (BP)—The day before terrorists seized Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall, International Mission Board missionary Bert Yates was there.
"How long will it be before terrorists make good their threats and attack a public place such as this?" she thought to herself. Less than 24 hours later, her thoughts became a reality.
Yates and her husband Jack live only a block from the mall. For four days, the tragic events of the mall's takeover and hostage crisis unfolded around them. By the time it was over, as many as 200 people were dead, hundreds were traumatized and over 175 wounded.
Kenyan authorities continue the grim task of recovering victims buried beneath the rubble of the internally collapsed building. A combination of multiple explosions and intentionally set fires caused sections of the mall to give way.
Militants of the Somali-based al-Shabaab organization seized the mall on Sept. 21 in retaliation for what they called Kenya's interference in internal Somali affairs. They used automatic weapons and hand grenades to seize hostages and take control of the modern upscale mall, killing at least 60 who were inside when the militants stormed the building.
Yates and her husband heard the gunfire and explosions, and watched as helicopters hovered over their house for 72 hours before the crisis was over.
"I would often stop, especially after times of sporadic blasts and firing, and think how calm and normal things were in our house and garden," Yates said. "People were suffering only a short distance away in ways that I could not even imagine. To be so close, but so separated, was a surreal experience, eerie. But really, there is no good, defining word."
Terrorists managed to hold off Kenyan security forces for four days before Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was finally able to announce the end of the ordeal.
IMB missionaries Chris and Jamie Suel, along with their five children, had walked into the mall shortly before the terrorists, who burst in and began firing automatic weapons and throwing hand grenades. When the Suels arrived, they decided to go their separate ways -- Chris with one child and Jamie with four. It was only after five harrowing hours that they were reunited.
For three hours Jamie and the four children hid behind stacks of packaged flour in a storage area.
"I remember thinking on the way in that the flour would be good, protective from bullets," she said. They heard the sounds of hand grenades, machine guns and helicopters as they hid.
Using her cell phone, Jamie managed to maintain contact with her husband and other members of the Kenya Baptist Mission. Chris and a son were on a different floor at the other side of the mall.
"After a while, some men identifying themselves as police started yelling that it was OK, it was clear, come out, it was OK," Jamie said. "I didn't trust it at all. I called Chris, and while everyone else left he told me that it was not clear and I should not leave. After hanging up I heard a barrage of gunfire. I thought they had been massacred. I prayed God would put a protective bubble around us so we would not be seen or heard."
Eventually, when all seemed clear, Jamie and her four children made their way to safety.
As the attack on the mall commenced, Chris and his son tried to find the rest of their family. They had to turn back, however, as bullets struck the escalator they were on, ricocheting everywhere. They hid in a store where workers shut and locked its doors.
"The gunshots kept going non-stop for 10 minutes," Chris said. When they stopped he was able to reach Jamie by phone and learn she and their four children were OK, hiding elsewhere in the mall.
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