'Base! Base! Terrorism! Terrorism!'
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 13, 1998; Page A01
NAIROBI, Aug. 12Benson Okuku Bwaku was at his usual post, manning the drop barrier at the rear entrance to the U.S. Embassy parking lot, when he saw something he had never seen before -- a truck making an abrupt left turn off Haile Selassie Avenue, bouncing over a raised curb and barreling toward the barricade "at a terrible speed."
The vehicle, which the private security guard identified as a 3.5-ton Mitsubishi Canter, was carrying the bomb that minutes later would kill 247 people and injure more than 5,000. It lurched into its sharp turn just as Bwaku had raised the barrier to allow a three-wheeled mail cart to pass through, Bwaku said in an interview today.
"Something here told me that truck was unusual," Bwaku said, pointing to his stomach.
From his vantage point, it appeared that the truck driver saw an opportunity to speed through the raised barrier. Concerned, Bwaku asked the driver of the mail cart to hurry so he could drop the barrier again.
A second later, a dark-skinned man with a low hairline jumped out of the truck's passenger seat and strode quickly to Bwaku, leaving the door open. He wore a plaid shirt and baggy gray jeans with two sets of pockets on each leg front. When he reached the barrier, Bwaku said, the man reached into his pockets and pulled out what Bwaku took to be explosives.
In the man's right hand were four small, rounded devices with strings dangling from them. The guard assumed they were bombs. In his left hand, the man brandished a smaller, spherical device Bwaku suspected was a hand grenade. He took two steps back.
"Open the gate!" the man demanded in English, and threw the object in his left hand at Bwaku's forehead. "I dodged down," Bwaku said. "It passed over me and hit the ground at the back. And I heard an explosion."
The device landed near a parked green four-wheel drive vehicle. Bwaku, whose instructions were to allow only approved vehicles into the compound, referred to it by its tag number: 29CD56K.
The guard fled in the only direction he could -- out of the box canyon formed by the embassy, the high rise bank building and the Ufundi Cooperative Building between them, toward Haile Selassie Avenue. Stationed behind him at a metal fence ringing the embassy was his fellow guard, Joash Okindo, and he had done what he was supposed to: He locked a set of the heavy steel fence gates after the three-wheeled cart had gone through.
Bwaku sprinted a short distance, stopped, glanced back and shouted into his walkie-talkie: "Base! Base! Terrorism! Terrorism!"
He said he believes the message did not reach the U.S. Marine stationed at the bullet-proof Post One, the reception and guard station in the embassy's lobby. "There was too much other communication" on the frequency, which embassy guards share with motor pool dispatchers and other embassy personnel.
While he was talking, Bwaku heard a second explosion, this one between him and Haile Selassie Avenue. A third guard, Jomo Matiko Boke, was standing near the road.
Boke said today that after the truck passenger threw the grenade, the driver -- who had remained behind the wheel -- began firing a pistol toward the embassy. He remembered shouting "Benson! Danger! Danger! Bomb! Bomb!" before fleeing.
Benson Bwaku now dashed headlong from the site. Turning left at the corner of the embassy, he was halfway to the embassy's side when the truck exploded. Bwaku said he was trying to get away and to reach Post One. "I was trying to save my life and other people's lives. I was trying to do both things at once," he said.
His life was saved by the embassy. When the bomb detonated, the squat structure absorbed the brunt of the concussion, which nonetheless knocked Bwaku off his feet. The window frames he watched falling toward him were caught by the branches of trees planted in the sidewalk. The embassy's tall iron perimeter fence snagged the utility pole thrown in his direction by the blast.
Dusty, confused and deafened, Bwaku lost his navy blue beret but found he still had his walkie-talkie. He climbed to his feet and resumed running, not stopping till he reached the motor pool dispatcher's office at a railway complex across Haile Selassie Avenue.
Boke was less fortunate. "There were people lying on me" where he was tossed by the blast, Boke said. Now ambulatory but nursing internal injuries and a swollen left wrist, he said little in an interview at the Nairobi offices of United International Investigative Services, an Anaheim, Calif.-based firm that holds the contract for embassy security. Two days of intensive interviews with FBI agents had left him exhausted, he said.
Such first-hand accounts may be all investigators have to go on as they try to find those responsible for the attack. A U.S. official here said the embassy's security cameras were not connected to videotape. The camera mounted at the rear of the building was being monitored at Post One, but the Marine watching it "was very busy" and apparently did not see the confrontation at the lot entrance, which may have lasted less than 20 seconds, a U.S. official said.
An FBI artist rendered what Bwaku called an excellent likeness of the man who approached him. "The man appeared to me as an Arab man," Bwaku said. He said he was as dark as an African, but that his longish hair was straight. He wore sideburns to his jawline and a medium mustache. A few longish whiskers grew under, not on, his chin. The man appeared to be in his thirties and was about a head shorter and somewhat slighter than Bwaku, who has a medium build.
Neither Bwaku nor Boke knows what became of the attackers, but both guards said they could not imagine how they could have survived the blast.
FBI agents this morning also interviewed a woman who was waiting in a car outside the Cooperative Bank Building when the truck carrying the bomb pulled in. Agnes Muthoni Kambo, 31, a driver with Kenya Broadcasting Corp., was waiting in a Peugeot station wagon for a camera crew to return from a news conference in the building. Her account differs in some details from that of the two guards and adds others.
The same make and model truck that Bwaku described as old and "vague in color" Kambo saw as beige. "It jumped over the pavement, then drove very fast to the embassy building," she said. By jumping the raised curb to cross the access road, the truck avoided a checkpoint and drop barrier she had passed through at the other end of the access road running along the front of the Cooperative Bank Building. That checkpoint was manned by private guards not employed by the embassy.
Bwaku noticed only two occupants in the truck, but Kambo saw three. At least one, she added, was wearing a turban. While the man who climbed out of the passenger side appeared to have an argument with the guard at the drop barrier, she said, "the driver reversed the truck, and the rear part faced the embassy. When they reversed, I could not see any more."
Kambo said she first heard a small bang, like a tire bursting, then a louder blast before the huge explosion. "I heard a gunshot, then a bang that was a bit light, and then the big bang," which left her unconscious, she said.
When she awoke, she saw flames coming from the hood of her car. She screamed, and felt her voice coming out of her throat instead of her mouth. Her trachea had been punctured. She ran into Haile Selassie Avenue, where another driver took her to the hospital, where she was interviewed today.
Bwaku has recovered the hearing in his right ear, but hears nothing with his left. Okindo, the guard stationed at the gates behind the drop barrier, was flown to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for treatment of severe wounds.
William J. Guidice, president of United International Investigative Services, the company that employs the guards, confirmed that the truck carrying the bomb had tried to enter the diplomatic compound through a gate at the front of the embassy. "They said they had a delivery," he said, and a guard at the front gate told the driver that deliveries go to the back.
The rear entrance also provides access to the embassy's underground garage. A State Department official said that if the truck had reached that garage, very likely everyone in the embassy would have been killed. Bwaku "ducked, like anybody would, but he stood his ground," the official said.
"My people were trained," Guidice said. "They knew what they were supposed to be doing."
Bwaku, 33, has worked as a guard at the U.S. Embassy for six years, working 12-hour shifts five days a week. On his monthly salary of about $90 -- about 36 cents an hour -- he supports his wife, Beatrice, and son, Ephraim, as well as four nephews. His first wife died in 1994 giving birth to twins, who died.
"I did not think of dying," Bwaku said. "What I was thinking was to do my job as a security guard was to protect people's life and property."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company