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  Nairobi Rescuers Search for Signs of Life

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Rescue workers sift through the rubble trying to find survivors. (AP)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 9, 1998; Page A01

NAIROBI, Aug. 8—The explosion that tore into the U.S. Embassy and an adjacent office building here on Friday blew people right out of their shoes. There is a ladies' white flat in the median of Haile Selassie Avenue. A man's lace-up has been flattened face-down by traffic; "Saatosa Italian Fashion," the sole reads.

The intersection of Haile Selassie and Moi avenues was crowded with working people when the bomb exploded. Of the 140 confirmed dead here so far, all but 12 were Kenyans.

"I'm looking for my dad," said David Kamau, his bloodshot eyes brimming with tears. He stood with his mother, Elizabeth, and five others from his family today at the gate to the U.S. Agency for International Development building, which the Americans are now using as their embassy.

His father, Joel Kamau, had worked in the accounts department of the embassy for as long as David Kamau can remember, and was due to retire this year.

Accounts was on the embassy's second floor.

"They are telling me he was on the side where it blew up," his son said. "They are saying that they cannot find him."

Downtown Nairobi, a gritty, noisy place even on weekends, was achingly quiet today. It was a quiet only partly accounted for by streets emptied of traffic by police diverting the flow away from a disaster zone. It was the kind of quiet people noticed in Oklahoma City following the bombing of the federal office building there three years ago.

"We have never seen anything like this in Kenya," said Elizabeth Nyoroge. "We are peaceful people. We don't like violence."

Nyoroge heard the explosion Friday morning, could not get near the building, then returned later when the radio broadcast an appeal for people who know first aid. She was up all night pulling people from the wreckage.

"We slept here. We got six bodies out of that place," Nyoroge said. At one point her crew found a pocket of survivors. "They said, 'We are 12 girls and one man, and this is our names.' " But the concrete shifted, and all 13 were crushed.

At one point today, witnesses say, near the top of the heap that was once the Ufundi Cooperative Building, known locally as Ufundi House, an unidentified man was found in the rubble. Volunteers gathered around, lifted concrete, tugged. It looked as though he would be freed.

Then he announced his own death:

"Help me, help me. I have gone now."

By nightfall, the Israelis had arrived. They came with Homatro hydraulic pliers and Husqvarna saws, stretchers and dogs trained to sniff out flesh. They fired up generators and directed the cranes and bulldozers that Kenyans had hauled down to the scene the day before, when the cry went out for help.

Floodlights fired up, and the scene looked like a night shoot on a movie set, or night baseball -- every color brighter than in daylight.

The Israelis wear yellow helmets and green jumpsuits, and as they climbed to the wreckage of Ufundi House the familiar tableau was complete: professional lifesavers feeling for footing in front of a shredded federal building.

"Step back," said a man with a bullhorn, and the crowd obeyed, stepping over debris now mingled with litter from volunteers eating on the run. Shards of glass, an empty bottle of Kilimanjaro brand water, a rubber glove.

A statute book, blown out of a law office by the blast, had fallen open to Section 403: Traffic. Beside it lay legal papers, the pages glued to the matted grass by dried blood. The cover letter, addressed to Shah & Pavlesh, Advocates, was from Chris Abele. "Herewith enclosed find our qualification. Yours faithfully . . ."

"Step back," the man with the bullhorn repeated. "There are lives in there to save." The glass underfoot was not all the same. The granular pieces had blown out of car windshields, the rubber casings of which tripped people walking down the street to the scene. The mirrored shards were blown out of Cooperative Bank House, the central bank building next door. The plate glass came from Pioneer House, across the street.

Nairobi is capital of a country that was long a British colony, and along with a certain regard for decorum the colonial legacy includes the custom of calling any public building a "house," even when it's a skyscraper. A block from the bombing, Extelcoms House, a telecommunications headquarters, was missing all its windows. The blast tore the red tiles off the roof of the Kenya Railways Headquarters, exposing the lattice of roof work beneath.

But all eyes were on Ufundi House.

"From this building in the last 24 hours we've pulled well over 120 people, but some of them were walking wounded," said David Tredrea. The director of the St. John Ambulance service was working in a biohazard suit that looked as if it was made of tinfoil.

Now, he said, the rescuers were down to finding people they could not see, only hear. At midafternoon they found a man behind a wall past the building's main entrance. They knew he was only 15 inches away; he had seen the tape measure extended through a hole in the wall toward him.

"Unfortunately, once we punched through that wall, all we saw was rubble," Tredrea said. "And the building started to rumble."

He looked at the rubble with eyes rimmed in red.

"A five-story building, and it's just sort of . . ."

He did not finish the sentence, just smacked the palm of one hand into the palm of another. Flat.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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