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Freeze frame: Survivors seen in iconic photos of Kenya mall attack recall ordeal

On Sept. 21, the world watched in horror as multiple gunmen attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack, which lasted four days, left hundreds of people injured and scores dead. Dateline NBC spoke with Reuters photographer, Goran Tomasevic, who documented the attack, and three survivors seen in some of the chilling photographs taken inside the mall. Here’s what they said about the terror they experienced that day:

Kenyan businessman Abdul Haji helps guide a woman carrying a child to safety at Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, after four gunmen stormed the shopping center on Sept. 21 in a terrorist assault that lasted for four days. © Goran Tomasevic / Reuters / REUTERS

KATHERINE WALTON:

Katherine Walton and her husband, Philip, moved from Texas to Kenya with their family two years ago. Philip, a tech entrepreneur, was in America during the Westgate Mall attack. That Saturday morning, Katherine, a stay-at-home mom, decided to take her five kids, Blaise,14, Ian,10, Portia, 4, Gigi,2, and Petra, 1, to the mall for fast food and just to get out of the house. Katherine was on her way to meet her two oldest children at the Kenyan supermarket Nakumatt when she first heard gunshots.

“I think the first thought was, ‘I really can't believe this is happening." And then it was, you know, just instinct to grab the girls and run. … A Kenyan woman came and scooped up Portia. And we both ran right behind this -- display table.

“I got my phone and called my boys. And I said … ‘Don't come out of Nakumatt. They're shooting. Go, run, hide.’ … I was able to send a text and just said, ‘Are you OK?’ And Ian told me that they were OK and that they were safe.

Katherine Walton, left, carries daughter Gigi to safety as an unidentified woman, foreground, carries another on Sept. 21 during the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall. © Goran Tomasevic / Reuters / REUTERS

“We were laying down on the ground, trying to hide from them so that they couldn't see us. Really trying to stay invisible behind the cabinet.

“I saw them. I saw two whole men. … They were talking very slow, and as I've thought about it, they almost had a demeanor like they owned the place. They looked my direction. … It was pretty terrifying.

“Portia didn't make a sound the entire time. And even when she did finally roll over to her side, she just had a blank stare on her face.

“The Kenyan woman looked up and said, "The cops are here." … She put out her hands and told me to give her the baby. So I handed her Petra. She ran across. I think that's when Portia ran across by herself.

Portia Walton runs to Kenyan businessman Abdul Haji during the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on Sept. 21. © Goran Tomasevic / Reuters / REUTERS

“That's not Portia. She's typically kind of cautious, maybe a little bit anxious and -- not one just to get up and run … I think she saw the hope.”

ABDUL HAJI:

A businessman, Abdul Haji, was having a meeting in a coffee shop 20 minutes away when he heard of an attack at Westgate Mall. Scared that his brother, an undercover agent for the Kenyan intelligence service, was in danger, he rushed to help. When he arrived, he followed security forces into the building—handgun in tow.

Abdul Haji crouches near an elephant sculpture in the mall during the attack. © Goran Tomasevic / Reuters / REUTERS

“We saw a lot of dead people. And a lot of people had been shot up there, many had died. A lot were injured and bleeding-- helplessly. You name it, there were kids, girls -- young girls -- elderly women. … I had never seen such a thing. It looked like a war zone. 

“Immediately, we're tapping on the shoulder, tell them, "Get out. Get out." We see people in the shops, hiding. We knock on the shops; we identify ourselves as police -- I'm not a police officer, but, at that point in time, I had to identify myself as a police officer. 

“When we secured the (top) floor-- some of us started heading down. And we can hear gunshots. … We're thinking, ‘Let's go to their blind side. Maybe we can surprise them.’ I look down, and I see somebody hiding behind a table … a lady. … She looked very scared. And I'm thinking she was right in the middle of the crossfire. We were on one side; the terrorists were on the other side. They were firing; we were firing. And she's hiding behind something that was not giving her any protection; it just looked like a table.

“I turn to my colleague, and I tell him, ‘Listen. We have to get that lady out before we engage any longer with the terrorists. We have to get her out.’

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“I told her, ‘Listen. We're going to hurl some … tear gas canisters toward the entrance of Nakumatt. As soon as we do that, I want you to run toward us.’ And she goes, "I can't. … We have three children with us here." And we are just taken aback; we're shocked. We're thinking, ‘How are we going to do this? How are we going to do the rescue?’

“Suddenly, this young girl appears out of nowhere. I just call to her to run toward me. And she starts running. And, immediately, I'm thinking, ‘What a brave girl.’”

FAITH WAMBUA:

Faith Wambua was planning an anniversary celebration and headed to the Westgate Mall with her two young children to buy flowers for the occasion. They were walking toward a flower shop when she heard multiple loud bangs.

“I just told my kids to lie down. … Thinking that the building is collapsing, it made sense to lie in the open area because I said if we went into a store, then perhaps there'd be a lot of debris on us, falling on us. 

“I remember there were quite a number of people on the ground. But, as time passed, they all were clearing away. … But I knew with the little children, there was no way that I was going to be able to move to any of these places that seemed safer. So, I knew that was a point where I was going to just lie until the end of the ordeal.

“I remember even at one point they (the gunmen) were so close that we could actually smell the gunpowder. … Sometimes when I actually think about it, that smell of gunpowder comes back. And I can actually smell it…It was really traumatizing-- just lying there, being helpless.

Faith Wambua and her children lie on the floor of the Westgate mall during the siege. © Siegfried Modola / Reuters / REUTERS

“I was covering the children-- my son's head and my daughter's head. And I said, ‘Any bullet would have to pass through me first before it gets to these children.’ I was-- at some point, really, I thought it was over.

“I remember even telling my daughter, ‘Shush, quiet.’ So, this gentleman --I mean, all we could hear was-- you know like-- the sound of hands on the floor, you know. So, we knew this person was moving. And you could hear the sound of the clothes on the ground.

“And then he called me, ‘Mama, mama.’ Then I could feel him touching my son, ‘Baby, baby.’ Touching my daughter, ‘Baby, baby. Are you OK? Are you OK?’ …I'm thinking, ‘This must be a good person. They want to find out if you're OK, not are we alive. And then he said, ‘It's safe. It's safe. It's the police.’

“As he sat up, then I saw his shirt. I could tell clearly that's an-- a policeman's uniform. … And then he said, ‘It's fine. I'm going to lead you to safety. Get up.’

“I remember even seeing a body, lying there on the steps as we ran out. But I said, "I'm focusing on where we are going.”