Blood all over, you had to jump over bodies. That was August 1998

Minutes after the blast: Cars on top of each other like a badly-done sandwich. [File, Standard]
The fortunes of The Star, a fierce twice-a-week newspaper edited by the late extravagantly bearded, soft-spoken but virulently anti-Kanu Magayu Magayu were tumbling headlong.

So, on a cloudy August I was on my way to The East African Standard’s offices at Likoni Road for a sub-editor’s job interview that never happened.

A few minutes away from our Cannon House headquarters, I came across an old doctor friend of mine at the heavily-fenced American Embassy at the Moi Avenue-Haile Selassie Avenue roundabout.

Supporting ourselves against the guardrails that kept pedestrians metres away from the sharp-spiked inner fence, it was banter about his doctor days and my KNA reporter escapades in Kajiado. Small talk over, off I was off to catch a rickety Ford Transit matatu to Likoni Road. The stage was somewhere near the OTC bus station.

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After crossing Moi Avenue, I found myself haggling for some medicine at a ground floor pharmacy in Afya Centre. Suddenly there was a loud bang. The building started swaying. We were in darkness and covered by bits of cardboards that were seconds ago the ceiling.

Plumes of smoke and dust

A pinch on my left arm confirmed I was alive. It was time to get the hell out of the place. So it was a beeline to the door after realising the place was not really dark. Mine had been a shock-induced temporary blindness.

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Outside was a scene from Apocalypse Now. Smoke and dust billowed from what, minutes earlier, had been the American embassy in Nairobi and the adjacent Ufundi Cooperative House.

 Papers floated in the air, cars lay on their sides or roofs. Others were on fire piled up like a poorly done sandwich.  A 62-seater Kenya Bus had been shorn of its body and reduced to steel rafters; morbid testimony to what had befallen the passengers.

Trade Minister Joseph Kamotho is evacuated from Cooperative House: The bombs went off during his meeting with US ambassador Prudence Bushnell, a prime target for Al-Qaeda. Both suffered glass cuts. [File, Standard]

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A matatu was on fire. Blood all over, you had to jump over bodies.  Two hundred and twenty two people had been killed in the Al-Qaeda bombs that had been loaded in a light Mitsubishi truck that had smashed through the embassy gates.

 Gunfire from marines had stopped its suicide bomber driver from making it to the basement for maximum impact. The Nairobi blast was synchronised with another less lethal one on the US Embassy in Dar-es- Salaam, Tanzania.

In spite of the horror, my journalistic instincts were now telling me the situation would be worse at the embassy whose walls had collapsed so that you saw a side of the Cooperative House bell-bottom that had never been visible from from Moi Avenue.

At the spot where a doctor and a journalist had exchanged pleasantries minutes ago, were blackened stumps. It took me seconds to realise they were charred human remains. What had been cars were now twisted and mangled metal lumps on fire.

Roofs collapse

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A  customised Co-operative Bank Land Cruiser I used to drool for daily on my way to work had been tossed over 20 metres away to the out-of-town lanes of Haile Selassie Avenue. The roof of the nearby colonial-era Kenya Railways Headquarters had caved in courtesy of the blast. Glass windows were shattered as far River Road and the University of Nairobi.

In streets far away from the blast, cars rammed into each other Mad Max style as panicky drivers tried to get out the town.

Madness it was as sirens blared. Ambulance crews and Red Cross workers were collecting the injured and driving off at maddening speeds. The dead could wait. Public-spirited Kenyans shifted through the rubble for survivors only to realise they could not heave the collapsed embassy walls.

Police could do nothing

Meanwhile, police had set up a chaotic, if not futile presence. The crowd was unmanageable.  No yellow tape cordoned off the area. At the intact Cooperative Bank some Administration Policemen were fighting over a fat envelope blithely ignoring the protestations of a GSU toughie.

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An hour or so after the blast white British Army trucks from Kahawa Garrison arrived bristling with heavy artillery. I wondered what for.  The Kenya Army was also there and, you wouldn’t forget the clean-shaven machine gunner and the deadly sash of an ammunition belt across his chest.

Meanwhile, Mugoya Construction earth movers and excavators had arrived as did assorted equipment from other construction firms but nothing was happening. Coordination was zero.

Enter the Israelis

Meaningful search and rescue would happen more than 20 hours later on Saturday. At around 3.30pm there appeared a marching column of men in jungle-green military fatigues and yellow helmets.  The Israelis had arrived.

Within minutes, the hitherto idle earthmovers roared into life with men who had flown for 3,700 kilometres behind the controls. It was poignant indictment of our helplessness. But this is not to say our armed force sat back and watched the Israelis, Americans and Germans do all the work. They dirtied their hands in equal measure.

In less than hour, the Israelis had set up a power supply and lighting and pumped oxygen into cavities between collapsed walls in case there were survivors. Meanwhile an occasional sharp bark by their dogs signaled the presence of a body or a survivor.

An Israeli soldier helps a Kenyan counterpart injured during the search and rescue work at blast site. [File, Standard]
In the morning, an old man had kissed and hugged the Cooperative Building telling it “I knew you were strong”. He wasn’t a weirdo but its designer who had flown all the way from Israel on learning his handiwork had survived the Al-Qaeda bombs.

The Americans would fly in FBI, who collected the tiniest bits of evidence into plastic bags, and a rescue team as did the Germans.  Fairfax County Fire Brigade donated a Ford Ambulance to the Nairobi County Council, which ambulance has now disappeared.

Done with their job after a week nor so, the Israelis also donated their equipment to Kenya. A senior military officer would later be in serious problems after some of it also disappeared.

At The Star I held nothing back in a page one story headlined WHY ISRAEL?

Kenya Airforce men at work. [File, Standard]

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