The Cellulant Six: They gave their lives so their colleagues would live

Victims of Dusit terror attack during their memorial service at Citam Valley Road in Nairobi on January 22, 2019. [David Njaaga/Standard]
As speakers took turns to pay tribute to the gallant men who risked their lives to save their colleagues, there was pin drop silence in the church. The congregation sat still, stiffened by grief, pain, loss and so much more.

Citam Valley Road was yesterday predominantly filled with mourners in dull black and navy blue attires.

Just a week ago, none of the people gathered at the church had imagined they would be congregating their yesterday. But last week, in just a few hours on Tuesday afternoon, the lives of most of the congregants – parents, young widows, babies, friends and Cellulant staff – changed forever.

The afternoon of that Tuesday, January 15, 2019, was a typical one for the Kenyan division of Cellulant, which occupies the first and fifth floors of the Cavendish Block on 14 Riverside Drive, situated at the farthest end of the complex of seven buildings, just next to dusitD2 Hotel.

But the Cellulant house was not full on that day. Fifty employees of the tech company were at a Nairobi hotel getting first aid training. Twenty other staff members, including Chief Executive Officer Ken Njoroge, were at an event in Zambia.

Earlier that morning, Ashford Kuria Maina, 31, Denis Munene Mwaniki, 29, Jeremiah Mathai Mbaria, 31, John Wanyaga Ndiritu, 29, Kelvin Kariuki Gitonga, 28, and Wilfred Kareithi Waihura, 23, had left their homes for work as usual.

Except, this time, unlike in the dozen of months they had worked at Cellulant, they never made it back home.

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At 3pm on the fateful day, Mbaria and Maina were in a meeting. Mwaniki was to join them.

Ndiritu and Gitonga were working on a joint project while Waihura, who was supposed to be at the first aid training, had just walked in and was getting ready for a conference call with a client.

Slightly over a dozen other staff were also at a meeting.

Some minutes after 3pm, the office occupants heard a bang from outside, which they ignored. Not long after, they heard yet another blast. Before they could react, gunshots started sounding and that is when they knew it was serious.

On either side of the Cellulant offices on the first and fifth floors, there are exits. According to the CEO, the staff escaped the building using the exits to the next property.

Escape route

Several staff members managed to leave in those early minutes of the attack. By then, the terrorists had noticed their escape, and as survivors narrate, one of the shooters took an elevated position in the building, raining bullets on them like hailstorms.

Unsure about the movements of the terrorists, 17 staff members locked themselves in the building.

Another group ran back into the building and split themselves in two groups, comprising six and 11 respectively.

The group of six, comprising Mwaniki, Mbaria, Ndiritu, Gitonga, Waihura and a female colleague, hid in a tiny space below the stairs leading to the first floor.

The remaining 11 ran to hide on the fifth floor, one of the gunmen spotted them.

“Our office is all glass and therefore very open, so the only place to hide is the washroom,” the CEO told the congregation.

When they got back to the office, the men and women hid in their separate washrooms, but after locking the entrance.

By then, the gunman that was pursuing them had broken the glass entrance and entered the office, following them into the washrooms, where the staff, including Maina, were hiding.

“They pulled Maina out and killed him at that point,” the CEO said, recounting a narration by some of the lucky survivors.

The team in Zambia, including the CEO, were having lunch when the news of the attack reached them.

“We were eating when my co-founder stepped out to take a call. When he returned, he told us the office was under attack,” said Njoroge.

Now aware of the attack in Nairobi, they started following the proceedings on the company’s Whatsapp group.

“One of the people there told us the terrorists had taken Ashford and were still shooting,” Mr Njoroge recounted.

According to colleagues, just before his shooting, Maina had told his colleagues “I think we can actually fight these guys”.

For the Cellulant employees who knew Maina well, his death was a strong coincidence. He had on many occasions deliberated on the possible solutions should the office come under attack.

Soon after Maina’s shooting, the terrorists went to the women’s bathroom. They tried to push the door open, but it could not as the women pushed back on it, never giving up.

“We know you are in there. Open up!” survivor accounts state. But the women would not relent.

Surprisingly, the terrorists eventually gave up and left without killing any of the women.

Meanwhile, another attacker was shooting across the staircase.

“We felt helpless. They kept describing the shooting and pleading with us on Whatsapp to help them,” stated the CEO.

But there was nothing they could do.

From their hideout, below the first floor staircase, the five men and their female colleague heard gunshots near them.

“They heard the shooter coming. They described it as if they could actually hear him walking above their heads,” Mr Njoroge continued. He adds that they reported the gunman ‘running his gun on the railing of the stairs’.

Eventually, the shooter found the tiny hiding room, opened the door and according to the CEO, had a conversation with them. “He introduced himself as Al Shabaab then started shooting at them”.

The five had hidden and shielded a female colleague at the back, so the gunman did not shoot at her. After the gunman left, she smeared blood on herself and played dead.

Later that night, the Red Cross went into the building and retrieved the bodies of the six.

The reason the six men did escape earlier, according to the CEO, was to try and get their colleagues to safety.

“Many of them were leaders. They could not leave their colleagues behind. People were asking where they had gone only to learn that they had gone back to rescue others,” he said.

Young daughters

In the wake of the attack, the families of the six men are left to struggle with an even more painful process, that of acceptance, letting go and moving on.

The Cellulant Six missed the chance to advance their extremely promising tech careers and raise their young families.

“I would still say ‘I do’ if I knew how short a time we would have,” said Mwaniki’s wife in her tribute. Mwaniki and her had been married for only five months.

Maina, who was to turn 36 on Wednesday, the day after the attack, was described by his aunt as ‘meticulous to a fault’. He was engaged to be married later this year.

Mbaria and Ndiritu were fathers of extremely young daughters, who were not even of school-going age yet. Ndiritu’s daughter is only five months old.

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