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In Kenya mall, not seeing the attackers was part of the terror

By David Simpson, CNN
September 23, 2013 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Saturday's attack on a Kenyan mall left people scrambling for their lives amid chaos
  • Shoppers had to quickly hide and then wonder whether to run -- and when
  • American Sara Head hid in a stairwell: "We didn't want to go up or down"
  • 20 people huddled for safety in a restroom, where "every sound sounded scary"

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(CNN) -- In hiding, they listened carefully. To gunshots and explosions. To friends and strangers hiding with them.

With their lives at stake, they spoke quietly and tried to decide: When do we run for it?

Sara Head of Washington hid in a stairwell. Uche Kaigwa-Okoye's place of refuge was a stall in a ladies' restroom. Zulobia Kassam was in the back of a supermarket.

Each was lucky enough never to see any of the gunmen who killed dozens in the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, on Saturday. But not seeing their attackers was itself part of the terror.

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Relatives of Johnny Mutinda Musango, 48, weep after identifying his body at the city morgue in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, September 24. Musango was one of the victims of the Westgate Mall hostage siege. Kenyan security forces were still combing the mall on the fourth day of the siege by al Qaeda-linked terrorists. Relatives of Johnny Mutinda Musango, 48, weep after identifying his body at the city morgue in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, September 24. Musango was one of the victims of the Westgate Mall hostage siege. Kenyan security forces were still combing the mall on the fourth day of the siege by al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
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Photos: Kenya mall attack Photos: Kenya mall attack

Stuck between floors

Head, along with a business colleague and a driver, fled from the parking lot after the shooting started. Her group ran into a stairwell, thinking they would go up one level and find a safe exit.

But they could hear more gunfire and backed down, winding up with a group of strangers cowering on the stairs between floors.

Keep up with the latest developments in Kenya

"We heard lots of shots at first, then none for a while -- maybe 15 minutes more -- then more," Head said.

"We didn't go want to go up or down," she said.

Head saw two people in the stairwell bleeding from minor wounds.

People talked on their cell phones -- she contacted her husband and the American embassy -- but then a stranger said the talking might attract the attackers. Those with smartphones whispered reports of hostages taken and grenades going off.

"No one really knew what was going on," she said.

Safety: Can the attack happen again?

Crowding in the ladies' room

Kaigwa-Okoye thought he heard a table fall over, "and then it happened repetitively, and it got really loud." Soon people started screaming and Kaigwa-Okoye joined many who ran outside.

But they heard gunfire outside, too, so Kaigwa-Okoye went back inside. Still unable to see any attackers, they thought they were backing away from danger. But when they reached a corner, shots were fired -- shots that seemed to be in their direction.

They fled to a ladies' restroom, where 20 people soon were hiding.

"We were really scared," he said. "Every sound sounded scary. We couldn't make out sounds, and they had grenades. It was really, really loud ... They must have passed our corridor several times. We heard gunshots down our corridor."

Some people ventured out but quickly returned, saying it was unsafe.

Near supermarket gunfire

Kassam had just finished coffee when she entered a supermarket in the mall.

"We entered and the lights went off," she said. She waited for the generator to kick in, but instead she heard gunshots and saw people running.

"We rushed to the back and hid ourselves," Kassam said.

"We heard random shots from everywhere -- upstairs, downstairs ... we even heard shots 30 feet from us," she said.

"People were petrified, crying, praying," she said.

Surviving the mall massacre: 'Just lucky'

'The lights came on'

Head had been in the stairwell 90 minutes when a door from the supermarket opened.

"The lights came on in the stairwell, and people went out. I was very, very hesitant because ... there was no information to tell me it was safe to exit," she said. "It was just that the people in front of me were exiting."

"People were saying be quiet," she said. She saw drops of blood on the floor as they walked through the hardware section and a cereal aisle and then through the storeroom to get outside. Still they walked quietly until it seemed safe to make noise.

Then they ran, she said, not stopping even when they reached crowds of onlookers and photographers.

Tear gas, then rescue

"People were petrified, crying, praying,"
Zulobia Kassam, who escaped from mall

Kaigwa-Okoye heard firing but then realized police had arrived on the floor where he was hiding in the restroom. They were firing tear gas.

Officers told them to walk out single file and made them throw away their bags.

Kassam had been hiding in the back of the supermarket for more than two hours when a security person arrived and said it was safe to flee. She and others walked through a storage area.

"We saw lots of blood, sandals and shoes," she said.

She made it outside to the main road.

And even at what seemed a safe distance, she again heard shooting in the distance.

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