, NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 3 – “Use the gate! Use the gate and run along the wall!”
That was our saving call from a lady beckoning us from our hiding place near the Strathmore Business School (SBS) car park.
She was standing near the gate, exposed and putting her life on the line to rescue scores of people avoiding the nearest clear exit. Very courageous, I thought later, considering the security guards were nowhere to be seen.
Within 10 minutes a serene, calm university had been engulfed in panic and fear.
I was part of a dozen journalists attending a business journalism program in one of the basement lecture rooms. We were keenly following a lecturer expound the elements of a successful strategy for a company when we heard the first round of gunshots. We looked at each other and then at the lecturer.
My initial thoughts were that there were robbers inside the SBS complex. Cautiously, we all headed towards the back entrance that leads to the car park. No sooner had we opened the door, the second more prolonged round of gunshots went off in what appeared to be nearer than the first gunshots, followed by loud screams. It was clear Strathmore was under attack and not by robbers.
That’s when we all lost our cool. We had been joined by students and faculty running towards the end of the corridor only to find a locked door. Someone was fast enough to break the glass where the key to the emergency door. Otherwise, we would have been holed up in the SBS complex with the only exit being the main entrance.
Interestingly, some of my colleagues went back for their bags and laptops.
Meanwhile, the gunshots continued to rend the air as sirens neared the campus. We ran to the parking where we hid behind the cars.
“Did you see them? They have blood shot eyes,” two students huddled next to me were saying amidst sobs.
To our right, a faculty member was being supported to walk by colleagues off the SBS building using the ramp that leads to the parking bay. His legs couldn’t support him and he was visibly in pain. He had to drag his feet on the ground.
Further on, about 500 metres from our hide out, we could see people standing and bending precariously on window ledges from as high as the fourth floor. I didn’t see anyone jump but I was convinced any slight glimpse of the ‘terrorists’ and most people would have jumped.
Adjacent to this building is a construction site where workers were evacuating the site. I later saw some of them carrying injured students to safety outside the campus.
These scenes might have pushed more people to use the seasonal stream adjacent to the car park to escape. Although the gradient is steep and muddy, and the only way out was going under a mabati fence while still in the knee-length water; many students and staff members opted to escape using this route.
Some of us hesitated using the stream exit and it’s at this time I decided to call our News Editor.
“Momanyi, I am at Strathmore and there are gunshots from one of the buildings. Everyone is trying to get out,” I said.
“Gunshots? Okay, let me get back to you,” responded the editor in his usual cool and calm demeanour probably acquired from his many years as a crime reporter.
In less than a minute, he sent a text: It’s a drill.
“A drill? There was no way this is a drill. People are hurt and some are almost jumping. How is this a drill? ” I responded.
“Yes, It’s a mock exercise,” he insisted.
Momanyi is often reliable, so I had reason to believe him but what I was seeing was contrary to what he was saying.
So the gentleman who was being literally dragged was pretending that he couldn’t walk? Were the students on the ledge acting? Not possible.
It is at this point the lady called us to run and exit through the SBS gate. We later learnt her sister, who was part of the catering team, lost her life as a result of jumping while escaping ‘terrorists’. Several other students sustained broken limbs and multiple fractures. A lecturer who was to teach us jumped from the fourth floor and broke both legs.
Along the Ole Sangale Road, where it was considered safe distance, most students were visibly shaken, some crying while others too weak to stand. Others had lost their shoes, personal belongings and a few had minor injuries.
Rumours of the incident being a drill started trickling in when some of my colleagues from other media houses also confirmed with their editors. But the damage had been done. Those who escaped earlier had crossed over to Langata Road to T-Mall causing anxiety in the shopping mall.
I overheard two male students talk about how some police officers, responding to the gunshots in the institution, aimed and cocked their guns towards one of the students. Other students shouted ‘don’t shoot, he is a student. He is one of us,’ averting what would have been a disaster.
An hour after the first gunshot, the weight of the botched drill was sinking in as ambulances started carrying away injured staff and students. Some of us went back to class and continued where we left off without realizing the extent of the damage the drill had caused.
In strategy, a plan is as good as its execution.
In this case, the execution failed.