Revealed: American family rescued by hero of attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall
Exclusive: American family the Waltons have told how they were rescued from the siege at Nairobi’s Westgate mall by a man who has been hailed a hero. Aislinn Laing reports.
Faced with a long afternoon trapped in the house with her five children last Saturday, Katherine Walton decided on a quick excursion – a trip to Nairobi’s popular Westgate Mall.
On arriving together, her two teenage boys briefly went ahead with Mrs Walton following with her three daughters including four-year-old Portia.
Four hours later, the family lay pinned to the ground opposite the supermarket where they did their weekly shop as gunmen hurled grenades and sprayed bullets just yards from them.
“We were just going to meet my two older boys in the supermarket when we heard an explosion,” said Mrs Walton, a 38-year-old IT worker from North Carolina who moved to Kenya with her husband Philip and their children two years ago.
“I grabbed the girls and started running. A woman pulled us behind a promotional table opposite. I could see the bullets hitting above the shops and hear the screaming all around us.”
She remembers only fragments of the hours that followed which she spent huddled under the table, but, according to Mr Walton, 39, she saw enough of the attackers to be able to describe several of them in detail afterwards.
Mrs Walton and an Asian lady escape with two of the children (GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
“She heard them talking to people, telling them to stand up followed by gunshots,” he recalled. “The thing that’s troubling her now is she can’t forget the smell of the gunpowder.”
During their ordeal, the couple’s three daughters, aged four, two and 13 months, were shielded and calmed by an injured Kenyan woman and two Indian women who hid with them.
“They were so still and quiet,” Mrs Walton said. “My baby was screaming when there was shooting but between that, she just slept. In one lull in the fighting, my two-year-old and the baby were playing together with my phone. I couldn’t understand how they could be acting like everything was fine.”
Yards away a man with a pistol who was shooting at a heavily armed young jihadi in a bandanna who was taunting him to come closer.
That man was Abdul Haji, the son of a former security minister in the Kenyan government, who had rushed to the mall after getting a text message from his brother who was trapped inside.
Abdul Haji and a fellow police offider in the mall. (GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
“We saw a lot of dead people. Very young people, children, old ladies, you cannot imagine,” Mr Haji told the Kenyan television station NTV.
“From what they were doing, you could tell that these were not normal people. The fact that he was making a joke out of this whole thing made me much more angry and determined to engage them, and to shame them.”
Mr Haji said his father taught him to use a gun to protect their cattle from bandits when he was growing up.
Last Saturday, he used his skills to provide fire cover for the Kenyan Red Cross workers and, over a period of three hours, help to evacuate some of the 1,000 people who escaped the mall in the initial stages of a siege that would last three days and leave at least 72 people dead. As he stood with a fellow rescuer crouched outside the Nakumatt supermarket, Mr Haji said he noticed the women hiding under the table.
“Just a few minutes ago we were exchanging fire with the terrorists and these people were right in the middle of it, in the crossfire. We regrouped and we started to strategise on how to get them out of there,” he said.
Mr Haji helps another woman and child to flee the scene (GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
He asked the women to move towards them but they indicated they had children with them and could not all run together.
Mr Haji said he asked Mrs Walton if one of the older children could be encouraged to run towards him.
Mrs Walton’s oldest daughter Portia emerged and ran across the deserted corridor.
The moment was captured by a Reuters photographer, Goran Tomasevic, in a dramatic image that was beamed around the world.