David Silverstein: Finding Love Amidst the Chaos of the 1998 Terrorist Attack

At 10 o’clock on the morning of August 7, 1998, a two-vehicle convoy emerged from behind the security walls of a four-bedroom villa in Nairobi’s Runda Estate.

The lead vehicle was driven by Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, 23, a Comoros Islands native. Close behind him came a Toyota Dyna truck carrying two tonnes of TNT, ammonium nitrate and other explosive material.

All of it was carefully packed into hundreds of cylinders arranged inside wooden crates to create what the US military calls a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. This one had unprecedented power to maim and kill.

The Toyota’s driver was Jihad Mohammed Ali, known as Azzam, 24, a citizen of Saudi Arabia. Next to Azzam sat Britain-born Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, 21, who was armed with a 9mm semi-automatic Beretta pistol and some homemade stun grenades the group liked to call ‘potatoes’.

The convoy’s destination was the US Embassy, a half-hour drive away at the corner of Haile Selassie and Moi avenues in Nairobi’s central business district.

Fazul carefully led the other two vehicles through traffic to their target then drove on. After some moments of apparent confusion over how to proceed, Azzam pulled the Toyota truck into a small parking lot behind the embassy via the exit lane.

Mohamed Al-Owhali later told the FBI that at that moment he was supposed to jump from the truck and toss several grenades in the direction of any bystanders in order to scare them away.

He said he had expected to be killed in the attack. Instead he panicked, lobbed a single ineffectual grenade at an embassy guard and fled on foot. Azzam in the meantime detonated the bomb.

The huge blast incinerated Azzam and almost everything and everyone around him.

Moments later 670km away in Dar es Salaam, a second bomb of the same size and general construction exploded outside the American embassy.

Meanwhile back in Nairobi, Al-Owhali had yet to put any distance between himself and the Toyota truck when it detonated.

He suffered lacerations to his face, hands and back and went for treatment at the MP Shah Hospital. There he discarded keys and bullets, raising the suspicion of the staff. Two days later he was arrested and interrogated by Kenyan police. A federal judge in New York would later sentence him to life imprisonment for his role in this terrorist act of mass murder.

Ka-boom, then carnage

I was in my office at the Nairobi Hospital when the explosion happened. Even though I was three kilometres away, its ka-boom rang loud in my ears and the aftershock vibrated through my body. I looked out the window to see a great plume of dense smoke billowing hundreds of feet into the air.

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1998 bomb blast

A file photo taken on August 8, 1998 shows police workers removing the remains of the car-bomb used to destroy the US embassy in Nairobi, that killed 280 Kenyans and 12 Americans.

Photo credit: Alexander Joe | AFP

I couldn’t tell for certain how far away it was. State House was in the approximate direction of the cloud so I reached for the special white telephone – a hotline – that connected me instantly to the State House comptroller, Abraham Kiptanui.

As President Moi’s personal physician, I had good reason to be concerned. Abraham assured me that State House had not been hit and President Moi was safe.

Horrified and angered at the thought of the carnage I knew was headed our way, I ran to the Accident and Emergency Department.

When I got there, I encountered Channa Commanday, a highly skilled emergency nurse from Portland in the US. Channa had first come to Nairobi Hospital in 1994 as a patient herself.

She had been on vacation in the Masai Mara, riding a horse when it swerved to miss a stump, and horse and rider crashed to the ground. Channa had fractured her pelvis and several ribs. She had spent a week as a patient at our hospital.

She had come back to Kenya to teach emergency nursing and to develop and implement a disaster plan for the hospital. This was going to be the first opportunity to test her system.

Channa later told me that as soon as she saw the huge cloud of smoke she pulled on her white lab coat and loaded her pockets with trauma gear: scissors, eye glasses, stethoscope, pens, notebook and other items. She locked her door as she left knowing it would be a long time before she returned.

“I need a triage officer,” she said when she saw me, “and it’s you”.

Channa assigned two nurses, Naomi Ngugi and Sylvia Atieno, to work with me. Though calm and focused Channa obviously was in a high adrenaline state as was I. This was going to be the moment of truth for our largely untested staff.

Channa later wrote in a report that would be read into the record at the sentencing of al-Owhali at a federal court in New York: “Maybe three minutes from the explosion a sudden wall of broken bodies began descending from buses and cars, charging through the open doors wide-eyed and bleeding into our emergency department. My first thought was, ‘This is a nightmare. My God! How will we cope?’

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken puts a wreath down at the August 7 Memorial in Nairobi, Kenya, one of the sites of the 1998 United States embassy bombings that left hundreds of people dead.

Photo credit: Pool

“Battalions of cleaners kept mops and buckets in full swing to stem the progressive reddening of our floors and pale green walls.

Not small groups of people but crowds pushed endlessly through the doors of the emergency department, leaning, limping, dragging and carried on top of each other with no end in sight.”

As the first casualties reached us, we only knew what our senses told us, not why the bomb had exploded or by whom.

Not until later did we learn that August 7 was the eighth anniversary of the launch of Operation Desert Shield in Iraq and the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia. This American incursion onto Muslim soil was a gross violation in the view of militant Islamists such as Osama bin Laden, a man whose name was yet to make headlines.

Neither had any of us yet heard of a terrorist organisation called Al-Qaeda.

We did learn after the fact that the American ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell, also injured in the bombing, had repeatedly and unsuccessfully requested that the embassy security be upgraded.

The embassy incurred heavy damage from the explosion as did the 17-storey Cooperative Bank building next door.

On the other side of the embassy, Ufundi House collapsed to the ground causing the majority of deaths. The heat from the blast also incinerated a passing bus packed with passengers. The death toll was 213. Only twelve were Americans. Another 4,500, nearly all of them Kenyans, were injured.

Eleven people were killed in Dar es Salaam and another 85 wounded. Al-Owhali’s stun grenade had caused many people on the street and in surrounding buildings to turn towards the embassy just as Azzam exploded his bomb. The result was a high incidence of lacerations and eye injuries from flying glass

The best organised and most helpful among the volunteer first responders were the drivers of matatus. They ferried some 500 blast victims to Nairobi Hospital.

We attended to them wherever we could — in the ER, in the hallways and offices, even the library. We only lost one person, a man who died from his blast wounds just as he entered the hospital. Two others arrived dead.

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While I was stabilising patients and assessing their wounds, Channa was stepping over and around bodies, checking respiration, pulse and consciousness.

It was well past nightfall when we saw our last patients. I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. My head ached and I was hungry. I asked Channa if she had had dinner yet. She laughed. “I haven’t even had breakfast. Let me take a shower and change first.”

Nothing was open at 10.30 pm save for one of the very best restaurants in Nairobi, the Mandhari at the Serena Hotel. As we walked in, I asked the maître d’ if the kitchen was still open. “Pole kwa kazi (Sorry for all the work). Hang on. Let’s see what we can do.”

The chef who had just left for the night was called back. He produced a first-rate meal that was balm for the soul.

Channa was delightful despite the day’s horrors. Of course, we reviewed the grim hours at length with despair in our hearts for all the broken and maimed. Yet we weren’t altogether solemn. Her beauty and wit had a relaxing effect.

As I escorted Channa back to her flat at the hospital, I wondered if the day’s dreadful events had perhaps catalysed something unspoken between us.

That was too big a question to address just then, but I was sorely in need of a life-affirming gesture. I kissed her lightly and was delighted that she kissed me back. Then I said good night and went home, tired and troubled but with hope in my heart.

Channa and I had met in a time of extremes and then shared a gourmet dinner and a bottle of wine. We were barely acquainted yet I got the feeling that she saw right through me. It came as something of a relief. Although successful in medicine, my personal life was a mess.

She was mischievous yet wise – a woman you could trust, who would never be boring. It was absurd to think this, but it struck me she was my last chance at something I had been avoiding. I didn’t have a word for it then. I do now. It’s intimacy. We married two years later when I was 55. That was more than 20 years ago. As it turned out, I was right on every count with a bonus thrown in. Not only did I get to know Channa, I got to know myself.

Tomorrow in the Daily Nation: Controversy over the death of Chief Justice Zacchaeus Chesoni and Dr David Silverstein’s fight to clear his name and save medical career