A chance table change during lunch may have led to an American woman surviving the horrific siege at a Kenyan mall over the weekend.
On Saturday afternoon, Bendita Malakia, a Harvard-trained lawyer with the World Bank, was at the upscale Westgate shopping center in Nairobi to meet a colleague for lunch.
But, before the carnage began, the two friends decided to switch tables because they didn't like the one they were at.
When they sat down at the second table, "we had a drink, and we're chatting, and then all of a sudden there's this explosion," Malakia told NBC News after arriving in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
"The gentleman who had taken my [old] seat must have gotten shot immediately because he was basically on the floor, on the ground, like dead right next to the chair that I was sitting in," said Malakia.
People around them then began crawling, attempting to escape, but a second explosion rocked the scene just moments after the first one.
The heavily-armed militants from the Somalia-based al Shabaab staged a shooting massacre that killed some 61 civilians and 6 security officers and shattered countless lives. As the assault developed, the terrorists began letting Muslims go and only targeting people of other faiths.
"When they first came in, they were just shooting. They weren't asking any questions, they were just shooting," Malakia said. "Later, they tried to differentiate on religion, but at first they were just shooting."
Crawling away from the gunfire, Malakia and her friend made it to an employee break room in a nearby store, where they waited with about 15 other people — but still able to hear what was happening in other parts of the luxury shopping complex.
"People are screaming, you hear lots of running, gunshots, explosions, and there’s all sorts of things," she said. "Some of the older women especially are hyperventilating, it's just kind of, it's complete chaos, it's mostly gunshots and screaming and running at that point."
Malakia said she could hear the gunmen's voices and occasionally people asking them not to shoot. Using someone else's phone, she sent a text message to her father, asking him to pray for her.
"It was terrifying, we all had a very real sense that we were going to die," Malakia said.
She and the others with her survived by hiding for five hours in the back room of the store until what she called an "American security team" showed up to rescue them.
Malakia said the group was told: "'If you guys want to get out, we understand it's dangerous but this is probably your best shot. If you don't get out now you may not get out.'"
So, they all made a beeline for the exit and ran out of the mall — where she said two grenades thrown about 30 feet away caused her to emotionally break down, even as she had finally escaped.
Kenya’s president Tuesday said security forces have killed five terrorists and arrested 11 suspects in connection with the attack, bringing to a close four days of chaos and carnage.
Malakia said she doesn't yet know whether she'll ever return to Kenya, but for now, she said she is still trying to process the events she's been through -- and spend time with her family, who said they were scared to death of losing her.
"She was my lucky number seven -- that's what I always call her -- my lucky number seven, after four still borns and two miscarriages," Lue Malakia, her mother, said.
"I'm scared to death that I'm going to lose her."
First published September 25 2013, 5:20 AM