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  It Was an Ordinary Day, Then Horror

Kenyan, Israeli and French specialists search for survivors Sunday in the wreckage of a building in Nairobi. (Reuters)
By Karl Vick and T.R. Reid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 10, 1998; Page A01

At the offices of a private investigation firm called Surveillance Ltd. in downtown Nairobi, Paul Okello pulled aside the curtain and peeked out the window.

It was about 10:40 a.m. on Friday, and Okello had been taking his morning tea break with the other two people in the office. Barack Odera, one of the firm's investigators, had just said, "I need another sugar in this coffee." Okello, who does the company's books, smiled and replied, "Yes, just like you." Beatrice Ngeru, the secretary, was sipping Nescafe at her desk across the way. They all heard the noise at the same time. It sounded like an explosion.

Almost in the same motion, Okello and Odera rose and stepped to the windows above their desks. Something was going on at the American Embassy across the street.

From his fourth-floor window, Okello had no vantage on the embassy's parking lot. But he could see the walkway leading to it behind a steel fence, and the two security guards there were behaving in a way that told him something was wrong. One man in a blue uniform was speaking urgently into a walkie talkie. The other was running.

It was the last thing Okello registered before the second explosion.

The shock wave and the roar arrived at nearly the same moment. The blast that blew the accountant across his office filled his nose and mouth with cordite. The bitter residue remained in his respiratory system for a day and a half. He tasted gunpowder with every breath.

A lot of people thought the blast had something to do with the bank strike. Employees of most Nairobi banks had been on what Kenyans call "an industrial action" for several days, and there are several banks near the site of the bombing.

The Cooperative Bank, on the ground floor of a high-rise that looms above the U.S. Embassy two doors away, was one that had remained open for business. Operating with a skeleton crew made up of management employees, it offered service that was very slow, but it was service, and by some accounts as many as 100 people were lined up in front of the bank Friday morning.

Abraham Muthogo Kamau was at his desk next door at Ufundi House, a four-story office building and secretarial school. He worked there as a loan officer for the bank's business finance subsidiary, which had its doors locked but was receiving customers by appointment. "We analyze risk," Kamau said later. "Lending risk only, not any other kind of risk."

But his office itself turned out to be a risk. Located on the ground floor of the building, it faced the U.S. Embassy. Only two offices stood between Kamau and the parking lot where the bomb exploded.

Dominic Olango, one of the bank's fund managers, was in the first office. The other office, in a corner formed by the embassy and the parking lot, was that of Musyoka Mwilu. "Those guys I'm worried about," Kamau said.

At 10:30, Kamau was just finishing with a customer. The guard unlocked the door to let the customer out, leaving the banker at his desk tending to paperwork when the first explosion sounded. To people high up in surrounding buildings, it may have sounded like a construction boom; to someone sitting not 50 yards away, it was deafening.

Kamau, 29, rose from his chair to investigate – a simple act that meant he would live to see his wife and baby boy. He walked out of his office and into the bank's foyer. He saw panicked people running down Aga Khan Walk, the pedestrian way in front of Ufundi House, away from Haile Selassie Avenue and the embassy. The last thing he remembered was asking the guard to open the door so he could see what was going on.

In Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital on the Indian Ocean 450 miles south of Nairobi, it was just another sultry mid-winter day. The U.S. Embassy's regular driver, named Ndange, pulled up to the small security gate on Laibon Road.

Ndange was returning from his regular round delivering fresh, potable water to homes in the neighborhood. He may have exchanged a few words with the Tanzanian guards manning the embassy gate. If he did, they were his last words. Suddenly, a massive explosion underneath his Toyota flat-bed truck sent its chassis and big blue water tank catapulting through the air.

The force of that blast tore the front wall off the east wing of the concrete-block embassy, destroyed every one of the 22 cars parked in front, wrecked homes up and down the narrow street and rained debris on streets and houses for nearly a mile in every direction.

Not surprisingly, the explosion also stopped the clocks in the embassy, providing one of the few facts known for sure about the Dar es Salaam bomb: It went off at 10:39 a.m.

The bomb killed Ndange and either eight or nine others; the victims were so badly mangled, doctors said, that a precise body count was difficult. It injured about 70 more and turned the big white embassy building into a charred wreck that probably can never be used again. And it ended for good the common assumption that peaceful, pro-American Tanzania held no serious security threat for U.S. diplomats.

The American ambassador to Nairobi was not in her embassy. Prudence Bushnell had made the short walk past Ufundi House to the skyscraper called Cooperative Bank House, a 22-story tower that rises high above a section of downtown Nairobi. Its occupants share the parking lot behind Ufundi House.

It was a routine business morning. Bushnell, a career Foreign Service officer who has received approving notices during her posting in Kenya, hosted a news conference on trade. Then she led four embassy staff members into the offices of Kenya's minister of trade, Joseph Kamotho, where they and two of the minister's aides made plans for a visit soon by Commerce Secretary William Daley.

Outside, the streets were as busy as ever. The embassy stands where Haile Selassie Avenue meets Moi Avenue – named for Kenya's longtime president, Daniel arap Moi – one of the most chaotic intersections in a city infamous for unruly traffic. The crowds of pedestrians that clog most of Nairobi's downtown traffic circles are supplemented outside by the embassy on most days by people lining up to apply for visas, taxi cabs discharging Americans arriving for appointments and cars trying to stop where security guards say they may not.

It was in the minutes just before or after 10:35 that the driver of the vehicle containing the bomb pulled up to the front gate of the embassy on Moi Avenue. The vehicle was approached by a guard in the navy blue uniform of the Kenyan security firm employed to guard the embassy, United International Investigative Service. The guard, according to a U.S. Embassy official, told the driver he could not enter, that only vehicles with embassy license plates were allowed to pass. The guard sent the vehicle around to the back entrance where deliveries are made.

What happened at the delivery gate is not clear. According to witnesses quoted by local newspapers – whose account a federal official called approximately correct – as many as three men jumped out of the vehicle with guns drawn and opened fire on guards there. At least one hand grenade was thrown, the U.S. official said, killing the guards.

High in the Cooperative Bank tower, the grenade blast sounded to the ambassador like a boom echoing from a construction site. Lawrence Maina Ndeeri, Kenya's director of external trade, did not know what to think and rushed to the window. He saw nothing out of the ordinary and had turned his back to resume the meeting when the second blast slammed him to the floor. Glass flew. The ceiling crumbled. The office door flew off its hinges.

He remembered hearing once that during an earthquake you should protect your head. He tucked his under a stool. "It was like I was in a dream," he said.

Bushnell must have lost consciousness, she said. When she came to, the room that had eight people in it moments before the massive explosion held only three. She realized, too, that at some point she had put her hands over her head and that they were bleeding. Blood also ran from cuts to her right cheek; her lower lip was torn by flying debris would need stitches.

Everything seemed to be clanging – the ceiling, the furniture, the window frames now inside the room. Her first thought was, "Is the building going to collapse." Her second: "Ay-yi-yi! We're on the 18th floor!"

Bushnell stumbled into a corridor that opened into ruin. The partitions separating offices had collapsed. She found a stairway and started down with scores of other injured workers. The railing, she noticed, was slick with blood.

At Surveillance Ltd., it took Paul Okello a long time to get to his feet. The office was a shambles. Okello's computer was on the floor, along with much of the ceiling, all of the furniture and a great deal of glass. His shirt and tie were drenched in red. His colleagues, Barack and Beatrice, were nowhere to be seen.

"The first thing I was trying to play in my mind was whether there would be a third explosion," he said. "I didn't know whether to leave the building."

Finally, he made his way to the staircase, also crowded with people. He did not see anyone who was not bleeding. But there was no panic. Okello had the feeling that the people were moving as much out of caution as consideration, that a lot of others were sharing the same thoughts about whether they would be better off outdoors.

Street level was a fresh hell. Bleeding people ran in every direction. Debris lay everywhere and was still falling from the shattered buildings. Smoke poured from behind Ufundi House, which had collapsed against the Cooperative Bank tower.

Abraham Kamau lay in a heap in front of it. The blast had sent him through the door of Ufundi House and into the street. His face was torn from above his left eyebrow to his nose. His knees and forearms were scraped raw by the concrete he landed on.

He woke up in a stranger's BMW. "You guys just hang on," the driver said. Kamau looked around and saw two other people bleeding beside him. When the car reached Nairobi Hospital, Kamau pulled himself onto a stretcher and waited to be carried inside.

Okello arrived at the same hospital in another stranger's car. Two men had found him on Harambee Avenue, a block from his office, and insisted he get into the car. Six more bleeding people were crowded into the vehicle, along with a woman whose legs appeared to be dislocated.

While his wounds were being assessed – in addition to dozens of lacerations, a shard of glass had perforated the cornea of his left eye – he spotted Beatrice Ngeru, the secretary from his office, across the emergency room.

"How are you?" he called out. Her wounds were being stitched closed.

Tanzania, a poor country of 30 million people, was never considered a high-profile or high-priority assignment for the State Department. The embassy staff consists of barely three dozen Americans, and there has not been a U.S. ambassador here for months.

At a time when embassies around the world receive regular warnings of potential danger, U.S. diplomats in Dar es Salaam had to think back seven years to the last time there was a serious threat here. That was during the Persian Gulf War, in 1991, when the embassy staff was reduced to "essential personnel only" because of the possibility of terrorist attacks by Iraqi agents.

The four-story U.S. Embassy building stands in a pleasant suburban neighborhood outside the city center, near the curving shore of Oyster Bay on the Indian Ocean. The structure initially served as the Israeli Embassy and, consequently, was built tough. Its 18-inch-thick reinforced concrete walls proved so strong on Friday morning that no one inside the building was killed – not even among those working in the east wing, a few feet from the explosion.

But those outside, in or near a small guard shack at the gate where Ndange's water truck pulled in, were exposed to the full force of the blast. It was there, amid a jumble of debris and twisted metal, that the casualties were found.

Four miles from the embassy in Nairobi, the blast slammed shut the doors in Bill Larson's office.

Larsen runs the logistics department at the East Africa headquarters of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He has spent the last three years shipping medical supplies and cots to Rwanda, Somalia and other pockets of turmoil in this part of the continent from the relative serenity of Kenya. A few minutes later, he had a radio call from one of the federation's drivers.

"There's some kind of riot in Nairobi," the driver said. "People are running."

When Larson learned it was a bomb, he sent a truckload of medical supplies and filled a request from rescue workers for ropes, axes and saws. It was noon by the time he got through the traffic to the blast site, which stunned him in more ways than one.

There were people everywhere – in the streets, in the shredded buildings and, most alarmingly, all over the rubble that had been Ufundi House. The great heap of broken concrete looked like a game of King of the Hill that half of Kenya had turned out for.

The same Good Samaritan instincts that turned scores of Kenyans' cars into ambulances had brought hundreds of citizens scrambling to help recover survivors from the wreckage. They were standing on every ledge of the heap, waving frantically for rescuers to come and help pull someone free.

Peter Karanja of the Kenya Red Cross climbed to the very top of masonry pile with a walkie-talkie. Larson took another walkie-talkie and, from the street, relayed instructions until the battery went dead. Then he borrowed another.

Overhead, a pair of helicopters circled. Their prop wash was blowing debris off rooftops and building fronts onto the people below. It had been going on for an hour. Finally, Larson turned to a Kenyan police officer. Can you get those helicopters away from there? he asked. The officer nodded. Five minutes later, the helicopters were gone. Larson was both gratified and dismayed that no one had thought to issue the order. "It was really tricky there for several hours because of no control," Larson said. "Lots of military and police, but nobody in control."

On the other side of the pile, another rescuer was having the same thoughts. "No one in Kenya is trained for this kind of disaster," said Salim Nyarecha, who had dashed a half-mile to the scene after hearing the explosion. "A power tool for cutting steel? We had just one."

Nyarecha, 6-feet-6-inches tall and weighing 280 pounds, managed to move a lot of concrete by himself. But he also used the power of his celebrity to organize rescue efforts. A professional actor, he plays a villain named Bwana Simba – Swahili for Mr. Lion – on Kenya's most popular prime time soap opera. Recognized everywhere he goes, Nyarecha took on the authority of his TV persona and directed the efforts of the people who kept coming and coming to help – and who beamed to see Bwana Simba personally lift a total of 10 people out of the rubble.

One of them turned out to be his aunt. At first he did not recognize her under all the blood. Then he got a good look. "This person, I know her." She was taken to intensive care with a fractured skull.

Vick reported from Nairobi, Reid from Dar es Salaam.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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