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Escaping The Kenya Mall Attack


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to start the program today by trying to learn more about the attack this weekend on a popular mall in Nairobi, Kenya. More than 60 people were killed when attackers fought their way into Westgate shopping mall, eventually holding hostages there. In a moment, we'll try to learn more about al-Shabab. That's the group claiming responsibility.

But first, we want to speak with Jason Straziuso. He's a reporter with the Associated Press. He covered the attack, but it took a very personal turn for him when he realized that some of his close friends were in the mall during the attack. And Jason Staziuso is with us now from Nairobi. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JASON STRAZIUSO: It's great to be here. Thanks.

MARTIN: Obviously, this is a very traumatic experience for everybody, including, you know, for the country, but for you in particular it took a very dramatic turn when you realized that your friends were in the mall. Your friend Lyndsay was in one part of the mall - her husband Nick and their young daughter were in another part of the mall. How did you find out about that?

STRAZIUSO: I found out because Lyndsay called my wife, she thinks, a minute or two after the shooting began - by the way, the noise you hear overhead is the military helicopter, I live very close to the mall - and I could see the fear spreading across my wife's face, and I heard her say, just get down, stay low. And that's not something you want to hear over the phone. So Lyndsay was hearing the gunfire echoing through the mall. Fear was creeping - was taking over her emotions and didn't know where to go.

MARTIN: Did she have any sense of what was happening at first? I mean, what did people think was happening? Did they think it was a robbery or was it immediately clear that this was something bigger than that?

STRAZIUSO: It wasn't immediately clear. I talked to multiple people who thought it was a robbery gone awry. I guess that was the first reaction and I guess that's what they latched onto. They didn't think that a terror attack was in progress.

MARTIN: How did each of them eventually get out? I mean, Lyndsay, because she was in one part of the mall and Nick and their daughter, Julia, were in another part of the mall - how did each of them eventually get out?

STRAZIUSO: Well, there's basically two separate stories to tell there. Lyndsay was upstairs, as you mentioned, in a bookstore. And after the bookstore, she went to a nearby movie theater, along with about 20 other people, and she said they were lying down in between the seats - still hearing the gunfire. Then they decided collectively that that was the wrong place to be. That if the gunmen went into the movie theater, that there was no escaping, that they were all dead. So they opened up an emergency exit door that led to the roof and they all fled to the roof. But then the problem there was, there's no escape. And they knew if the gunmen came up there, they were dead as well. And I was speaking with her on the phone at this point. I'm actually at the mall doing my job as a reporter, looking up at the roof and Lyndsay's saying, help me, what do we do?

MARTIN: A very difficult position to be in. And what about Nick and Julia? They were...

STRAZIUSO: Nick and Julia were sitting in this downstairs cafe, a beautiful glass plate windows. They weren't sitting outdoors, which is very fortunate for them. I heard a grenade blast go off. Nick scooped up Julia and began running, and eventually, ended up in this storage area, just by luck or circumstance.

MARTIN: And when they eventually got out, how did they get out?

STRAZIUSO: Nick and Julia were in the storage room for maybe two and a half to three hours. Eventually, a security personnel came in and said, you're safe, we can go out. And then - and they ran out. And there's this picture taken by a writer's photographer of Nick holding Julia tightly. And it's a gripping photograph because in the foreground there's a gun - police officer's gun pointed down at the ground and Nick and Julia are just running right by.

MARTIN: How are they all doing, if you don't mind my asking?

STRAZIUSO: They're each dealing with it in their own way. And I'm chuckling there because Julia, the toddler, is completely oblivious as far as we can tell. Nick and Lyndsay and Julia are still at my house. Nick, I think, is doing pretty OK - and I hate to speak for them on emotional level. Lyndsay is - I'd say she's working her way through what she experienced still.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that and thank you. And we're very glad that you're safe. We're glad that your friends are safe and, clearly, and our thoughts are with all the people who have been killed and injured in this terrible incident. Jason Straziuso is a reporter with the Associated Press. He was kind enough to take a break from reporting on this important story to speak with us from his home office in Nairobi. Jason, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STRAZIUSO: Thank you. Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.