None had it in mind that we will come out stronger after a tragedy intended to trigger so much fear. We’ve stood the test of time, and we are a resilient nation.
Friday, August 7th, 1998 is a day not to be erased from Kenya’s history. It started as a normal, glowing working day with people busy in their activities but turned out to be dreadful when a loud bang followed with a thick plume of smoke suddenly rose hundreds of feet into the air and saw glass and masonry fill the atmosphere.
On that fateful day, I woke up at dawn to walk for 7 km to my place of work the US Embassy in Nairobi where I worked as a cleaner. I arrived before sunrise and began my day with a word of prayer as usual, then started my cleaning job.
The US embassy sat on one of the busiest and most important street corners in the city, constantly filled with parades, demonstrations, protests and perpetual cacophony of the notorious Nairobi traffic. I had just finished my 10 o’clock tea when I heard a loud bang that sounded like a gunshot and I couldn’t fathom it well. Although Kenya is a popular destination for big game hunting, private gun ownership is restricted, I immediately knew something was wrong and before I could comprehend, I heard an explosion.
I leaped up and ran down the stairs, a decision that saved my life as I had just left the 3rd floor when the main explosion hit. Steel and concrete occupied the space where I had been sitting seconds before. Enormous pressure wave blew down the stairs almost knocking me off my feet. The sound was so great that it seemed soundless. A fierce wind of debris filled the air followed with darkness. I stopped and dropped. All the power went off and there was an overwhelming smell of dust and soon followed by black smoke. Breathing became difficult and the power surge visibility was impaired due to the darkness that engulfed the building. I was terrified and I knew I had to get out of the building as soon as possible. As I struggled to get my way out, I was joined by a couple of other people and we held hands as we groped in the dark for the nearest door. We finally found our way out and got the news of what had transpired. The simultaneous bombings in Nairobi and Dar es salaam had been planned meticulously by the Al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Kenyans are used to looking out for each other and many of them helped evacuate bombing victims.
I stood to hear from the security guards narrate to journalists on how the attackers drove their pickup truck into the parking lot. The driver and passengers insisted that they had a special delivery for the embassy loading dock. Indeed, they did a hundred pounds of explosives. When the guards refused to allow them in as the truck had no authority to enter, the attackers began shooting and threw a grenade. The drop arm remained locked with its padlock as the guards ran for cover. The frustrated terrorists then triggered the bomb in the rear parking lot instead of beneath the embassy as planned.
213 people died immediately, 44 of whom were U.S embassy staff and over 5000 were injured. Some staff who heard the noise and ran to the windows to look, died as the walls and windows exploded inwardly.
The blast and debris killed people at their desks and in many of the corridors while many others died as a result of crammed multi-drawer file cabinets toppling over them.
Meanwhile, an enormous wave of people poured through the ruptured perimeter from the streets of the city into the embassy. Some were looters, others were heroes, energetic and optimistic. Kenyans are used to looking out for each other and many of them helped evacuate bombing victims. The neighboring Ubuntu house had completely collapsed, and many members of the public moved as much concrete and debris as they could with their bare hands.
Staff at the British High Commission, which sat elevated above the city immediately noticed the column of smoke climbing from the US Embassy Nairobi and they responded quickly by helping in the rescue mission. They further organized support from the Kenyan and Nairobi city governments.
The search and rescue team among them volunteers from the public led by Worley Reed rendered their efforts tirelessly for two days until professionals arrived and took over. US government personnel and Israeli troops joined the rescue mission.
The terrorist 1998 terror attack led to several improvements. The department of state quickly deployed the first closed-circuit television video cassette recorders, along with safes to protect them from blasts to embassies. Other technical security equipment soon followed, e.g. Imminent Danger Notification System (IDNS) and the first generation of explosives detectors.
Despite this cruel act, Kenyans stood firm and their spirits were not dampened. They mourned their loved ones who perished and took good care of the injured some who even lost sight while others becoming disabled. Everything fell into place and we continued our daily duties.
The Memorial park today presents a serene relaxing environment, an absolute contrast to the dreadful events that happened in August of 1998. Despite being a platform that provides insights into the terrible incident, the memorial park and museum are a lesson to the many children and visitors that visit the place each day.
We learn that those who wish us harm are always strategizing and adapting hence we must also evolve and improve on our people, policies, and systems to stay one step ahead. May we all remember how the events 1998 brought together Kenyans in acts of heroism, mercy, and solidarity. May we never forget those who gave their blood, sweat, and tears to save lives, to honor the dead and heal the survivors. The collective memories may be the inspiration needed to bring Kenyans together across their differences and to remind the world of our commitment to justice and equality.