Kenya — A blast. Gunfire. American Katherine Walton grabbed her three young daughters and dove to the mall’s tiled floor. Later, a terrorist gunmen — skinny, small, with a huge gun — looked into Walton’s eyes but didn’t shoot. She and the girls, as Walton put it, were hiding in plain view, yet they weren’t seen.
It was likely the gunmen knew the family’s location: The 13-month-old frequently cried. But after four hours on the floor — a period long enough that the 4- and 2-year-old broke the tedium by playing with their mom’s phone — Walton and her daughters were saved by a group of responders that included a Muslim man who is the son of a former Kenyan government security minister.
The terrorists must have seen the three girls, Walton said.
“I don’t know how they couldn’t have heard,” she said. “My 13-month-old, every time the bullets started going, she screamed and screamed and screamed, and the sound echoed and echoed and echoed.” Two women hiding with them “were saying, ‘Make her be quiet.’”
Walton — whose two sons were elsewhere in the mall during the attack, and also escaped, credits her God for protecting her family.
“I know that he did, because how could we have been so in plain view and not to have been seen?” Walton told The Associated Press. “One of the more intense thoughts was this voice inside my head: ‘They’re not here to hurt you.’”
Looking for a weekend escape, Walton took her five children — Blaise, 14; Ian, 10; Portia, 4; Gigi, 2; and Petra 13 months — to Westgate Mall, which hosts a toy store and was holding a kids cooking competition when armed gunmen burst in just after noon last Saturday, the start of a four-day attack that killed more than 60 shoppers.
Walton saw three attackers. They had scarves around their necks and were wearing tan or grey khaki clothing. None was large, but all were carrying enormous guns, a “comical” juxtaposition, she said. Their skin wasn’t dark, as one might associate with most Kenyans, but she wasn’t sure if they were Somali. They spoke English with heavy accents — not Kenyan English, but not an accent she could place. In her mind, they were not local.
As the 38-year-old lay on the floor, bullets whizzed overhead. Two attackers walked into the Nakumatt department store near where the family was hiding, but didn’t walk far enough to see them behind the temporary sales display where they had taken cover. Later, one terrorist on a higher floor looked down over the mall’s open atrium and locked eyes with Walton.
“I swear he looked down and saw us but he just backed up and disappeared,” said Walton.
Walton never feared for her life. She believed she would see husband Philip, a 39-year-old information technology worker in Nairobi, again. The two have spent many years in West Africa, and the last two in Kenya. Before Nairobi they lived in San Antonio, Texas and Charlotte, North Carolina.
The family’s two older boys were inside the Nakumatt store. When the gunfire began, the older, Blaise, grabbed Ian and ran to the back of the store. They escaped after someone opened a rear door.
After four hours on the floor, armed rescuers arrived to help Walton and the girls. The men threw tear gas and had the women and girls run across an open walkway to a drug store.
“We felt really secure with them, and once we got into (the drug store) we started to get very teary and got upset, and one of them looked at us very sternly and said, ‘Stay calm. You’re safe. We’re going to get you out of here,’” Walton said.
One of the rescuers was Abdul Haji. He encouraged 4-year-old Portia to run to him in one of the more famous news photos to emerge from the mall siege.
Walton says Haji and the other men “were awesome.” Philip Walton, the father who was out of the country during the attack, said the family has not talked to Haji but that “we hope to. I’d love to shake his hand.”
United States Embassy officials reached out to the Walton family for support immediately after the attack, she said, and some family members have already had counseling. U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec told The Associated Press Friday that the American community in Nairobi is shocked and horrified by the attack.
“It’s a place where they would go on a Saturday to have breakfast or have a cup of tea with friends. It’s a place where people took their children,” he said. “The major point here is that terrorists carried out a horrific attack, a brutal attack and they did so on innocent men, women and children who were going about their daily business. And it was senseless, terrible violence.”
Katherine Walton said that life is getting better post-attack. But effects linger. The younger kids have taken to re-enacting the attack by lying down on the floor and saying they have to be quiet for the bad men, then wait for the good men. Counselors say that kind of play is healthy, Walton said.
As Philip said, the family knows that not every mall story ended as happily as theirs did. Despite the trauma, the family doesn’t plan to leave.
“What happened, it’s not Kenya,” Katherine Walton said. “It’s something that happened in Kenya but it’s not Kenya. Kenya is a good place. The people are wonderful. We love it here.”