NAIROBI, Kenya – After a blast and gunfire, American Katherine Walton grabbed her three young daughters and dived on the mall’s tiled floor. Later, a young terrorist gunman 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,’ ” she said.
Walton, whose two sons were elsewhere in the mall during the attack and also escaped, credits 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?” she told the Associated Press. “One of the more intense thoughts was this voice inside my head: ‘They’re not here to hurt you,’ ” she said.
Looking for a weekend escape, Walton, 38, had taken her five children – Blaise, 14; Ian, 10; Portia, 4; Gigi, 2; and Petra 13 months — to Westgate Mall, which was holding a kids cooking competition, when armed gunmen burst in just after noon last Saturday. It was 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 gray khaki clothing. None was large, but all were carrying enormous guns, she said. They spoke English with heavy accents – not Kenyan English. In her mind, they were not local.
As Walton 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,” she said.
Walton never feared for her life. She believed she would again see husband Philip, a 39-year-old information technology worker in Nairobi. 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 elsewhere 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 rescuers threw tear gas and had the woman and girls run across an open walkway to a drugstore.
“We felt really secure with them, and once we got into (the drugstore) 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 said 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.”