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Total Devastation in Nairobi, Kenya

August 7, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Clive Mutiso, thank you for joining us from Nairobi. Clive, where were you this morning, and what did you see and hear?

CLIVE MUTISO, Time Magazine: I was about three quarters of a mile from the embassy when I felt what seemed like an earth tremor, strong earth tremor. And then a couple of seconds after that, there was a thunderclap noise, just like an atmospherical thunderclap and a shock wave.

And I looked in the direction of the United States embassy, which it had come from, and I saw turbulence in the air up to a height of about 500 feet, clean turbulence, the sort of turbulence you would get from a large quantity of plastic explosive. And so I ran toward the embassy, reached the scene after maybe seven or eight minutes, and found total devastation.

The car parked at the back of the embassy on the South side was a sea of flames, caused by the explosion ripping apart the fuel tanks of vehicles in the car park, which then ignited and set fire to the tarmac of the car park and the road.

The five-story embassy building was utterly devastated. It was built, if I recall, fifteen, sixteen years ago, and designed to be bomb-proof, and certainly the structure, there was not much damage, but the interior of the building was completely gutted. The explosion had torn out all the windows and ripped out the false ceilings and heaped the furniture in piles of wreckage, in corners of the room. You could see right into all of the rooms of the embassy. And the scene was totally horrific.

I saw at least eight bodies carried out of the embassy, itself, although I believe that there were as many as thirty people killed instantaneously in the embassy. There was a seven-story commercial building right next store, which totally collapsed, trapping very many people inside. And everything was in a quarter mile radius of the embassy — every building was very extensively damaged.

I saw at least 20 bodies in the immediate vicinity, and I now understand there could be as many as a hundred people lying dead in mortuaries around the city. There are certainly 1,200 people with horrendous, serious injuries admitted to these hospitals, and the emergency services are struggling to keep up with the workload.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clive, in some of the pictures we’ve seen thus far that mound of rubble you say was the seven-story building adjacent to the embassy, we see people on that debris and people waving from the ground and people being brought out. Did you witness some of that?

CLIVE MUTISO: I did, yes. That building was called a Ufundi Cooperative House, and it was reduced to something like a quarter of its original height. There were massive blocks of five and ten tons of reinforced concrete, which were trapping the people inside.

Immediately after the explosion it wasn’t possible to get near it to try to assist people because it was all unstable. So it was necessary to bring in four forty-ton mobile cranes. One was stationed at each corner of the wreckage and began gingerly lifting away the wreckage and trying to clear a way to the survivors inside. But in many cases there were dead bodies, which were pulled out. Something like 30 dead bodies were pulled out.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clive, we have also seen some pictures. We also have seen some pictures from later today, when it’s night in Nairobi, as it is now still, although it may be moving toward morning now. What has been going on through the night in Nairobi?

CLIVE MUTISO: I was at the scene after nightfall, and it was quite eerie. For three or four blocks around the embassy the devastated buildings were in total darkness. They were being guarded by police and troops in light combat gear because the explosion ripped away glass walls and curtain walls and left them open to the outside street, and so they were being guarded.

The embassy itself, was bathed in an eerie yellowish orange temporary floodlighting, but I got the impression that although they may still have been searching inside the embassy building at the collapsed building next door they had already given up hope of finding anybody alive.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clive, let me ask you at the beginning you said that the turbulence in the air looked to you like what would be the result of a plastic explosive. You had experience in the Kenyan military reserves. What else can you say about your belief that a plastic explosive may have been involved?

CLIVE MUTISO: The devastation was almost indescribable. My estimate is that this must have been something like 500 kilograms of plastic explosive. We’re not talking now about a crude bomb here. This was a very sophisticated device.

The United States embassy, which is temporarily relocated in the U.S. aid building out of town, are still reluctant to attribute this to a bomb, because, frankly, I don’t think they yet have the capability on site to get the forensic confirmation that this is a bomb. But in my mind this was a large quantity of plastic explosive.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clive, finally, what can you tell us about-you said some 1200 people probably injured-what is the condition at this hour of the hospitals, the medical services trying to take care of those people?

CLIVE MUTISO: There are 1,200 people most certainly. They are admitted to these hospitals, but they’re just the most serious cases. And doctors, nurses, volunteer paramedics have poured into the hospitals to try to do what they can to cope with the incredible rush. One of the biggest constraints at the moment is lack of blood. So many of these people have lost a lot of blood in cut injuries caused by shards of flying glass, and so there’s still a desperate need for blood donors of all groups.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clive Mutiso, in downtown Nairobi, thank you very much for being with us.