Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mall terrorist saw mom, kids but didn't shoot

'Just backed up, disappeared,' says grateful U.S. woman

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Katherine Walton and husband Philip are thankful she and their children escaped the mall attack unscathed.

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Katherine Walton and husband Philip are thankful she and their children escaped the mall attack unscathed.

NAIROBI, Kenya -- A blast. Gunfire. American Katherine Walton grabbed her three young daughters and dove to the mall's tiled floor. Later, a terrorist gunman -- skinny, small, with a huge gun -- looked into Walton's eyes but didn't shoot. She and the girls, as Walton put it, were hiding in plain view, yet they weren't seen.

It was likely the gunmen knew the family's location because the 13-month-old frequently cried. But after four hours on the floor -- a period long enough that the four- and two-year-old broke the tedium by playing with their mom's phone -- Walton and her daughters were saved by a group of responders that included a Muslim man who is the son of a former Kenyan government security minister.

The terrorists must have seen the three girls, Walton said.

"I don't know how they couldn't have heard," she said. "My 13-month-old, every time the bullets started going, she screamed and screamed and screamed, and the sound echoed and echoed and echoed." Two women hiding with them "were saying, 'Make her be quiet.' "

Meantime, Kenya's military admitted it caused the collapse of three floors of the Westgate Mall in the deadly terrorist siege, an admission that raises the possibility the military killed hostages in the rescue attempt. It's feared an undisclosed number of bodies are still in the rubble..

Seven days after 67 people, including two Canadians, were killed in the attack on the upscale shopping centre, there is still no clear word on the fate of dozens who have been reported missing and no details on the terrorists who carried it out.

A government official said autopsies will be done on bodies of the dead to determine the cause of death -- from the militants or the structural collapse. The high-ranking official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge sensitive information.

Walton, whose two sons were elsewhere in the mall during the attack and also escaped, credits God for protecting her family.

"I know that He did, because how could we have been so in plain view and not have been seen?" Walton told The Associated Press. "One of the more intense thoughts was this voice inside my head: 'They're not here to hurt you.' "

Looking for a weekend escape, Walton had taken her five children -- Blaise, 14; Ian, 10; Portia, 4; Gigi, 2; and Petra 13 months -- to Westgate Mall, which has a toy store and was holding a kids' cooking competition, when armed gunmen burst in just after noon last Saturday, the start of a deadly four-day attack.

Walton saw three attackers. They had scarves around their necks and were wearing tan or grey khaki clothing. None was large, but all were carrying enormous guns, a "comical" juxtaposition, she said. Their skin wasn't dark, as one might expect with most Kenyans, but she wasn't sure if they were Somali. They spoke English with heavy accents -- not Kenyan English, but not an accent she could place. In her mind, they were not local.

As the 38-year-old lay on the floor, bullets whizzed overhead. Two attackers walked into the Nakumatt department store near where the family was hiding, but didn't walk far enough to see them behind the temporary sales display where they had taken cover. Later, one terrorist on a higher floor looked down over the mall's open atrium and locked eyes with Walton.

"I swear he looked down and saw us but he just backed up and disappeared," said Walton.

Walton never feared for her life. She believed she would see husband Philip, a 39-year-old information technology worker in Nairobi, again. The two have spent many years in West Africa, the last two in Kenya. Before Nairobi, they lived in San Antonio, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C.

The family's two older boys were inside the Nakumatt store. When the gunfire began Blaise grabbed Ian and ran to the back of the store. They escaped after someone opened a rear door.

After four hours on the floor, armed rescuers arrived to help Walton and the girls. The men threw tear gas and had the women and girls run across an open walkway to a drugstore.

"We felt really secure with them, and once we got into (the drugstore), we started to get very teary and got upset, and one of them looked at us very sternly and said, 'Stay calm. You're safe. We're going to get you out of here,' " Walton said.

 

-- The Associated Press

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A21

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