It was just another typical Saturday morning at Nairobi’s popular Westgateshopping centre until members of a Somali militant group turned the mallinto a scene of chaos, blood and fear. This is the minute-by-minute story ofKenya Red Cross Society staff and volunteers at the scene — and lessonsand memories they will carry with them forever.
07:00: Saturday, 21 September 2013. Ambulance driver and paramedic Alvina Brauhauser arrives at Kenya Red Cross Society headquarters to start her weekend shift on ambulance dispatch duty. She begins by finalizing the deployment of 12 ambulances and staff. “Some were going to wedding parties and one was scheduled to go a children’s cooking contest at the Westgate shopping centre,” she recalls.
08:30: Red Cross paramedics Daniel ‘Buda’ Kamau and Mabel Nakweya radio in to say they are at the shopping centre setting up.
11:00: Nick Thou, emergency operation centre coordinator, arrives early for his midday shift.
11:40: The emergency phone — only used if an ambulance radio is not operational — flashes. The call is from Buda, and Alvina immediately calls him back. “He started whispering that there was shooting and that they couldn’t find Mabel and he was hiding under a car,” remembers Alvina. “I could hear shooting and kids screaming and I could tell from his voice he was getting desperate, which is not like him.”
11:50: Emergency calls start coming in from people in and around the mall. They report gunshot wounds or people trapped inside the mall. “The phones were literally getting hot from all the calls,” Alvina remembers.
12:15: Buda, still on the line with Alvina, confirms that people at the cooking contest are being gunned down and grenades have been thrown. “I realized this was a major crisis so I called the secretary general and was given direct orders to deploy all our teams and ambulances to the scene,” she recalls.
12:20: The Kenya Red Cross Society issues an ‘alert level 5’, used only for the most serious emergency situations. Nick and a team of first responders leave for the scene.
12:30: The journey in the ambulance is tense and silent. “No one was speaking… we were worried about Buda and Mabel and we had no idea what we were about to come up against,” Nick recalls.
12:45: Still on the line, Buda tells Alvina that two women have been shot just metres away and that he can still see the feet of the gunmen from under the car where he is hiding. Alvina reassures him the team is on the way and urges him to keep calm. The call is disconnected.
12:45: Philip Ogola, Kenya Red Cross social media officer, is on his way to a rugby match when Nick reaches him with news of the unfolding tragedy. He pulls over to the side of the road and starts to pool information from Twitter and Facebook on his smartphone.
13:00: Emergency calls continue to flow into the control centre as family and friends turn to the Red Cross to locate loved ones. “All you can do is reassure them help is coming and not create further panic,” says Alvina. “Take down the names and numbers and get the job done.”
13:15: Amid a scene of chaos and panic, the ambulance carrying Nick and the team pulls up outside the mall. Terrified and shocked people run from the mall and scatter in all directions as gunshots punctuate the air. Nick and his team are forced to duck behind the ambulance.
13:30: Secretary General Abbas Gullet arrives at the scene and, amid the gunfire, gathers the staff and volunteers. A decision is taken to send a small Red Cross team up to the rooftop car park where the cooking contest had been taking place. “No one had yet been able to reach the scene of the shooting, so we knew we were the first hope for the injured people,” says Nick.
13:30: Now back at headquarters, Philip monitors the event via social media. “People started tweeting to our account from inside the mall; some were hiding, some were trapped on the roof and some needed emergency help.”
13:50: Abbas, Nick and the first response team cautiously make their way up the ramp towards the car park. “We had already put on our rubber gloves and prepared out first-aid kits,” remembers Nick, adding that Kenya Red Cross staff never use bullet-proof vests. “We went up slowly and crouched down, because shooting was still going on.” Nick remembers battling to keep calm. “I just said myself, if I don’t do this, who will?”
14:00: Philip and Kenya Red Cross press officer Peter Outa go to the scene. “My phone did not stop ringing with calls from the media, but because everyone was so busy, the only way I could get any information was to get to the scene myself,” says Peter.
14:00: The team makes it to the car park. “We could see dead bodies as we came up onto the roof… but we could also hear people calling out for help, so we immediately started triage and evacuation,” says Nick.
14:05: Applying a principle known as ‘scoop and drive’ as taught to Kenya Red Cross personnel by Israel’s Magen David Adom, Nick and the team give first aid to the wounded and begin transferring them into the ambulances that were speeding up and down the ramp. Gunshots continue to ring out from inside the shopping centre.
14:10: Buda and Mabel are found, both unhurt. The news is radioed back to headquarters.
14:20: The rooftop team work fast to treat and evacuate the wounded as gunmen roam inside the mall. Police officers and more Red Cross staff arrive. An unexploded grenade is spotted against the back wall of the car park. “We just surrounded it with shopping trolleys and continued treating the wounded,” explains Nick.
14:30: Philip and Peter, both trained first-aiders, arrive at the car park and begin to assist the wounded. “I helped give CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] to a woman who had been shot,” explains Philip. “She didn’t make it and her mobile phone rang just seconds after she died. I answered it. It was her husband.”
14:40: As most casualties have been evacuated from the roof, attention now turns to the bodies. A local resident offers the use of his pickup truck so Nick and the team begin placing the deceased into the back of the pickup.
15:00: With the rooftop now clear, Abbas, Nick and the team decide to enter the fourth floor through a fire-exit door with the Kenya Special Forces. “We moved carefully down to the third floor because we could still hear shots being fired,” recalls Nick. The team split up and try to locate the wounded or people who have been hiding in shops and guide them to safety.
15:00: Meanwhile, Peter and Philip go back down the ramp to the front of the building to help those still fleeing. “The shock really hit me when I saw people running through the doors crying,” Peter says. “The children were so scared. I knew I had to keep it together because people were looking to us for strength and hope.”
15:15: Team members reassure people it’s safe to leave and guide them to the exits. A number of people, including police officers, have suffered gunshot wounds and need immediate assistance. “The priority was to stop the bleeding with padding or tourniquets, and get people on stretchers and out to the ambulances,” says Nick. A young man dies as Nick tries to help him.
16:30: With all visible casualties and bodies now out of the building, they leave the building and join volunteers outside who are waiting to receive and guide the last survivors to safety. Exhausted and numb, Nick joins his colleagues the Red Cross trauma centre, set up in a building across the road.
17:00: Mabel arrives back at headquarters. “I just hugged her and she cried,” remembers Alvina.
By Jessica Sallabank
Jessica Sallabank is a freelance writer based in London and former IFRC