Caught in Kenya's mall shooting: an American's story

American Sara Head became trapped in a stairwell of Nairobi's Westgate mall during Saturday's deadly shooting. She spoke to CBC News about what it was like to hide from the attackers — with other survivors, including some of the wounded.

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American Sara Head became trapped in a stairwell of Nairobi's Westgate mall during Saturday's deadly shooting. She spoke to CBC News about what it was like to hide from the gunmen — with other survivors, including some of the wounded.

"I had just arrived at the mall. I had left a meeting just a few blocks away. We arrived in the parking garage and parked our car and right as we exited, I heard three gunshots. I thought it was a car accident. I thought maybe a car had been rear-ended or something, and I saw people around me running.

American Sara Head hid under a car and then in a stairwell after the gunfire started inside the Nairobi mall. (CBC)

My colleague recognized them as gunshots and she yelled at me to get behind cars or underneath cars. I saw people running, I saw people getting underneath cars, so I started to get underneath a car as well.

We heard some more shots, and then my driver, who is Kenyan and was with  me, said we should run, and so my colleague, myself, my driver, we started running toward the stairwell. I thought when we entered the stairwell that we would go up one level to exit the parking garage since we had gone down to get into the parking garage. When we were proceeding up the stairwell, we heard shots above us. We went down the stairwell and tried to exit on one of the floors and we could not, we remained in the stairwell for an hour and a half.

There were two people there in the stairwell with me who had superficial wounds from gunshots. We were eventually able to leave after an hour and a half through a supermarket. There was quite a bit of panic in the stairwell, particularly when people were trying to deciding whether they should up or go down or what they should do.

'A lot of panic and adrenaline'

There were quite a bit of gunshots initially, and after that, we didn’t hear any for quite a while and people began to calm down.

It got quite hot. Some people were fanning one another. They were fanning the girl who was wounded. People were using their cell phones to get in touch with relatives or to try to figure out what was going on. So there was quite a lot of panic and adrenaline.

People were telling one another to remain quiet. At one point, I don’t know if it was a mall official or what, [they] told us to only use texting, don’t make outside calls to your relatives. Try and keep quiet. I think people were fearful that, if they were loud, that someone on the other side of the stairwell would hear us and would come in.

There were a lot of unknowns. I myself, I didn’t know what was going on at all. I had just arrived in the parking structure.

I hadn’t entered the shopping centre, and the people around me, they were getting — they had their own stories and their own versions of what they thought was occurring. So there were just a lot of unknowns, and certainly people would rather have stayed unnoticed at that point, so they kept quiet.

All of a sudden — the light switch had been flickering off and on — it came back on and people exited via one of the stores, and there were employees at the stores who were still there and standing or pointing. There was blood on the floor as we were exiting, which looked like someone had been wounded and carried out.

It wasn’t really clear to me, when the door originally opened into that shop, so I lingered for a while in the stairwell because I was very hesitant to go out, not knowing if it was safe or not. And even as I was in the store and was exiting, I just looked at the ground and kept walking forward. We went through two or three sections of the store and into their stockroom and onto their loading dock."

Sara Head is an American consultant for an international development company. Shelives in Washington D.C. and is in Kenya on business. She went to Nairobi's Westgate mall to buy a cellphone after hers malfunctioned. Head became trapped in the mall for an hour and a half after the shooting started, spending most of that time huddled in a stairwell with some of the wounded.

-The transcript of this interview has been edited for length.


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