15 feet to flattened car: Kenya mall’s devastation

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Fifteen feet farther and my car would have been crushed.

After the mall attack tragedy that killed more than 60 shoppers, the matter borders on the trivial. But many who were at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall during the terrorist attack and military response that saw three mall floors collapse are now learning the answer to an important practical question: What happened to my car?

A two-man team from The Associated Press entered the bowels of Westgate Mall on Saturday in search of my family’s car that had been parked in the basement parking garage by friends shortly before the 12:30 p.m. attack on Sept. 21.

Near the mall’s entrance, inside the cordoned off crime scene, FBI and British security agents gathered in circles or typed on laptops. A muscled, military-looking white man with a large gun waved us in, past a crude metal-fence security barrier.

A police escort walked us past the metal barrier where drivers get parking tickets. The metal bar was bent straight back from a car that barged past the mall’s light security measures.

During the Kenyan military’s efforts to defeat the attackers, large explosions were heard from inside the mall and massive damage was caused when three floors collapsed. Kenyan officials told The Associated Press that the military response to the terrorists caused the collapse.

Based on my friends’ description of where they had parked my wife’s black Suburu Forester, we all knew the car was right on the edge of devastation.

Carrying jumper cables and a vehicle tool set, AP photographer Ben Curtis and I walked into the mall’s basement garage. The floor was flooded with a half foot (15 centimeters) of water, apparently from the emergency water sprinklers. A dozen other residents were also picking up cars.

Sunlight lit the back corner of the garage from a gaping hole where the massive destruction had rained down. Walking slowly, I was relieved to find our car, one row away from total destruction — about 15 feet (5 meters). The only damage was a thick layer of dust.

Just beyond my car the damage was immense. Huge slabs of concrete had cascaded down, exposing metal rebar. Burned-out cars — apparently from the top floor parking garage three levels up — lay on top of the rubble. In between the top-level and basement parking areas had been two floors of a department store.

A Kenyan government official has said it would take seven days to work through that destruction. But a close-up look shows it is much more likely to take many months of work, especially given the difficult access for large machinery, since the destruction is in the middle of the mall with no easy ground-level access.

No Western or Kenyan investigators could be seen working through the rubble.

Sherbanu Hashmy, a Kenyan lawyer, had parked a few rows from our car. She, too, had worried her vehicle might have been smashed. It was not, though her battery was dead and she needed a jump.

Hashmy, 29, spent six hours in a bank last weekend hiding from the terrorist attackers with 40 to 50 other people, including her mother. When the gunmen came close, security guards ushered all the shoppers behind the bank’s bullet-proof teller windows, she said. For Hashmy, the condition of her car was secondary to her life and health. Still, she was glad to have her car back.

“After the floors caved in I honestly thought that our car had come under the rubble. Because of the position we had parked, it was unlikely to have been saved. I was very scared nervous,” she said. A police escort with her said “it seems to be fine, and I just sighed relief.”

Not everyone was relieved. Perhaps a quarter of the parking garage has been destroyed. At a table to register your car’s presence a man walked up shaking his head. Another person asked if his car had been smashed. He said yes. Sorry, many people told him.

Somewhat good-naturedly he answered, “It’s just one of those things.”

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