My August 7, 1998 moment: A reporter recalls city's dark day

Ufundi Co-op House caved inward after the blast, trapping scores of people under the massive rubble. [File, Standard]

On August 7, 1998, I found myself in a rare unfamiliar territory of being idle at Nation Centre’s 3rd-floor newsroom without a major crime story or an exclusive investigative story I was chasing or piecing together.

A few minutes past 10.25am, I picked up the desk telephone and called a police contact trying my luck on a tip-off for a crime story.

As we chatted animatedly, I was startled by a powerful blast that vigorously shook my body and the foundation of the building.

The phone receiver fell off my hand due to the shock and tremor caused by the massive blast. Panic gripped the newsroom. I found myself shaking and sweating profusely. My heart was racing.

As I was recovering from the shock, I heard Training Editor Frank Whalley shout: “That’s a bomb blast!”

In such a major tragedy, you don’t wait to be assigned or get instructions from your seniors. I picked up my pen and notebook, then raced out of the building. My colleagues did the same.

I literally flew down the flight of stairs. In such a scenario, it would be suicidal taking a lift as it might stall and you get locked up inside for hours.

When I stepped outside Nation Centre, the streets of Nairobi resembled scenes we often saw on TV from Baghdad, where terror gangs and US soldiers used to detonate bombs at will like balloons.

People were running helter-skelter in all directions. Panicky motorists drove on any side of the road with lights full on. Pedestrians running for their dear lives were lucky not to be run over by motorists.

The skies were dark, covered with a cloud of thick smoke. It resembled a cloudy day when the skies are about to unleash a downpour. The smell of death hung in the air.

Nervous and trembling, I found myself racing in the direction where other people were escaping from.

That is the biggest hazard for journalists, security forces, and rescue groups. You run towards the direction of danger, not caring if you are running into a death trap.

In such cases, lives of other people matter more than yours. You also have to take risks for the big story.

Yet, I didn’t have a permanent job with the NMG. I had no company medical cover in case I got injured.

But I had a great passion in journalism and the fear of being killed or injured visiting dangerous crime scenes never crossed my mind.

I reached the blast site, about 300 metres from Nation Centre, in less than ten minutes. From what I saw, I knew this was Kenya’s bloodiest day ever.

In my short career as a crime and security journalist, I had covered some of Kenya’s worst and most complex crimes, which shattered many families’ lives and dreams.

It was the first time I was covering a crime of this international magnitude.

First responders at the blast site bravely attempt to rescue survivors. [File, Standard]

A thick plume of smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air. Clouds of dust choked the Nairobi skyline. Papers were strewn all over, with more flying above the shattered buildings.

At the scene, blackened and charred corpses were strewn all over. Blood-soaked survivors lay on the ground groaning in pain while those who could, took flight in any direction.

Shards of glass and metal had flown metres away from the epicentre of the blast, injuring pedestrians walking on the streets.

There was blood and pieces of human body everywhere I stepped. Nearly everybody, the injured and the rescuers, was crying in pain. You couldn’t see faces of some victims as they were covered in blood and dust.

The reinforced US Embassy building, which was the target of a powerful car bomb, was still smouldering but defiantly remained standing.

Most of the 200 people in the building were escaping though windows. I saw corpses being removed from the building.

Ufundi Co-op House, which housed a secretarial college and several offices, caved inward, trapping scores of people under the massive rubble.

Many of those who died in the terrorist attack were in this building, not the targeted US Embassy.

The adjacent 22-storey Cooperative Bank Building skyscraper had its glass windows ripped off and black smoke was coming from it. The front of the building was badly wrecked.

At the time, the US ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell was in the Cooperative Bank Building holding a bilateral meeting with Kenya’s Trade Minister Joseph Kamotho, at the latter’s office.  

I saw Bushnell and Kamotho being whisked out of the building by their loyal aides, who were also bleeding. The two suffered cuts from falling glass.

The ever-busy Haile Selassie Avenue, which is always clogged by traffic and a heavy flow of pedestrians, was a scene of carnage and destruction.

Three buses belonging to the Kenya Bus Services were destroyed and several cars were twisted hulks of blackened metal. In one of the buses, I found dismembered bodies of at least 15 people.

The blast killed more than a dozen pedestrians and incinerated dozens of others on their seats in the three buses.

The blast also shattered windows of most buildings within a radius of 200 metres, and blew the roofs off buildings across the street.

Then-US ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell (centre) being whisked out of the building by aides. [File, Standard]

As I walked along the front of the US Embassy building, I spotted Macharia Kinyua’s white station wagon. Its roof had caved in as people were standing on cars to receive injured people being passed through the gaping windows.

I knew Kinyua, the police officer who gave me a launching pad into crime journalism, was in the building and I feared the worst. Rescue teams at the bomb blast site comprised of soldiers, police, medical staff and ordinary volunteers.

They pulled out those still breathing from the rubble and put them in ambulances or any vehicle on site to be taken to the nearest hospital.

The rescuers crawled over the mountain of concrete slabs and steel that had been the Ufundi Co-op House, clawing at the debris to free people trapped inside. I helped a few people as I scribbled notes in my notebook. Tears welled in my eyes. I could feel warm tears freely rolling down my cheeks. I have never seen so much death and destruction in my life.

I learnt the massive explosion was preceded by a smaller blast, perhaps from a grenade, and gunshots from the terrorists after guards at the embassy blocked their way to the basement of the building.

Seeing time was running out and their plans might be foiled, the terrorists detonated the bomb at the parking lot just behind the embassy building.

The deaths and destruction would have been more catastrophic had the terrorists squeezed their way into the basement since the embassy building and surrounding ones would have been uprooted by the powerful blast.

Standing outside the ruins of the US Embassy building, my mind went to Kinyua and another close friend, Carol Wandeto. I was sure Kinyua, a former Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police based in Nairobi, was in the building when the terrorists struck.

Part of the duties of the new job was to act as a liaison on security matters between the embassy and the Kenyan government. Carol’s father was deputy head of the Pangani-based Flying Squad, until his life was senselessly cut short by killers’ bullets. She worked in the nearby Consolidated Bank.

There was no trace of Kinyua and Carol. Could they have been among the dead? With no mobile phones then, my only hope of finding them was through physical tracking.

I could not trace them that day. I conducted interviews and filed a news story. I had a long night tormented by the bloodbath and slaughter of innocent Kenyans.

I was greatly relieved when the next day I called Carol’s mother in Karatina and she answered her landline. She informed me they had traced her in hospital. She had sustained minor bruises, but out of danger.

I visited Kinyua’s home in Buru Buru estate, Nairobi, and found he had been discharged from hospital. The two luckily escaped with bruises and cuts but many families were shattered by the loss of their loved ones. Kinyua narrated how his instincts saved him from death. A few minutes before the blast, he had wanted to go to supervise the guards where the bomb was detonated. He went to the door and returned to his office three times.

“The powerful blast sent me to the floor and I woke up bleeding. I had been cut by flying glasses and debris,” he told me.

Although his safety mattered most, the embassy’s security, staff and ambassador Bushnell lay squarely in his hands.

“I rushed to the Cooperative Bank Building and bumped into rescuers carrying Bushnell to safety,” Kinyua told me.

The aftermath of the August 7, 1998, bomb blast in Nairobi. [File, Standard]

It is during such times of tragedies that I made most of my current friends. My friends kept swelling after every tragic situation I covered.

My colleagues and I covered the rescue operation in shifts for two weeks, day and night. You covered your bit and retreated to Nation Centre to file your story.

After nightfall, we sat there for long hours watching rescue workers and soldiers with backhoes toiling under floodlights to extricate dozens of bodies still buried under the rubble of Ufundi House.

It was like digging up graves since the last bodies to be pulled out had started to decompose. The sickly stench of death filled the air.

My colleagues and I put together the heartrending story of one lady’s struggle for her life under the massive rubble. Her tearful story, dubbed A Candle in the Wind, galvanised the nation.

Rose Wanjiku Mwangi, a single mother, communicated with rescuers from under the rubble for two days, day and night. Her braveness in the face of a cruel death spurred on her rescuers who worked even harder to try and save her.

The whole country was hoping and praying Rose would be pulled out alive. Her strong determination to live despite being buried under the massive rubble drove many people to tears.

But her voice suddenly fell silent on Sunday, August 9, 1998. Nonetheless, the following day, rescuers drilled a hole where Rose was thought to be.

Millions of Kenyans and other people around the world followed her captivating story and they mourned her death and those of the other Kenyans and Americans killed in the blast.

Like most parents and relatives who had children working anywhere in Nairobi’s city centre, my parents back in the village were greatly worried about my safety. They knew the nature of my work and their bet was I must have been in the frontline at the scene of the blast.

Rumour hitting the countryside had it that the entire city centre was flattened. Mobile telephony had not arrived and my mother agonised for many hours before I contacted her through somebody who had a landline telephone at the local Gathiru-ini shopping centre to inform her that I was well.

Tomorrow: Tracking the hotel where the bomb was assembled and how the “scoop” opened the doors for Muiruri. 

-Muiruri is a former Editor (Crime and Security) at the Nation Media Group and a former Editorial Consultant of The DCI magazine