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Terror at the Mall: Kate Snow Recounts a Mother's Nightmare

By: Kate Snow, NBC News

On any given Saturday, it’s not uncommon to find me racing around the local mall with my two children in tow—a Starbucks in one hand, a long list in the other.  My kids love to hit the Build-a-Bear Workshop, have a bite at the food court and check out the latest Legos (to add to their Christmas wish list).  I don’t have to tell you the mall is one-stop shopping.  I’m sure you have the same trusted spot in your town.

But imagine this.  You’re walking through the mall atrium on a Saturday afternoon.  Your kids have just eaten chicken and fries at the food court.  You’ve got a baby in the sling over your shoulder, a 2 year old holding your hand and a 4 year old skipping along.  Your two older boys have raced ahead to the department store that anchors one end of the mall.  You’re trying to catch up to them.  And then it starts.

An explosion.  Loud booms.  Gunshots whizzing past your head.  Tracer fire.  You instinctively hit the ground.  

That’s how quickly Katherine Walton went from a regular day at the mall to a gut-wrenching, agonizing afternoon she will never forget for the rest of her life.

I first heard about the Waltons a few weeks ago.  I was sitting in my folding chair on the sidelines at my daughter’s soccer game on a Sunday afternoon when my cell phone rang.  I recognized the number right away.  Dateline Producer Mario Garcia.  I knew the veteran producer had already headed to east Africa to cover the shooting that had happened just days before at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

 “Jambo,” I answered. 

In our business, we often have to leave our own homes at the drop of a hat and race to the airport.  So when the soccer game was over I went home and packed quickly.  I boarded a plane for Nairobi.

I met the Waltons the next day at their friend’s home in a suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Nairboi.   

I remember the first thing Katherine Walton said to me.  She said: “I don’t really understand why you guys are here.  I’m just a mom, just a regular person.”

The Waltons—Katherine and her husband Philip—moved back to Africa with their five children two years ago from Texas.  It was like going home for Katherine and Philip.  They’d both grown up in western Africa.  Both were children of Christian missionaries and are now part of a church community in Kenya.

I can appreciate why they chose to live there.  It is a gorgeous place, a place filled with wonderful people, where kids can roam and explore.

Portia is just four but very outgoing.  She quickly made me her friend and kept asking me to pick her up and carry her around.  She understands what happened to her in the way only four year olds do—some bad men did some bad things and they hid and now her family is safe again. 

As Katherine dove for the ground that Saturday in the mall, a Kenyan woman grabbed Portia to shield her.  Katherine and this stranger then huddled underneath a flimsy temporary display table.  Katherine was lying on top of the baby, Petra, and had 2 year old Gigi under her too.  Now she just had to keep her three girls calm and quiet.  She could see and hear gunmen walking past.  She was panicked that if they made too much noise, they’d be spotted… and worse… shot.

As I talked with Katherine, it was hard not to think about what I would do.  What if it were me in that mall with my two?  How would I protect them?  How would I keep them still and quiet?

As so many mothers would do, Katherine soothed her girls and rubbed their backs.  Portia had her fingers in her ears because it was so loud.  Gigi kept asking for her blanket and “mouse” that she sleeps with.  She was never quite sure where her older boys were.  She hoped they had already made it out of the mall before the shooting started. (They had not, but eventually escaped unharmed.)

After more than four hours crouched under that display table, Katherine finally saw someone who looked like a friend.  Abdul Haji was holding a handgun and beckoning from across the atrium.  Now she had to trust that an armed stranger was in fact on their side and would take her children to safety.   

Yes—as Katherine put it, she is “just a mom, just a regular person.”  But as I told her again and again, THAT is what makes her story all the more compelling.  We can all imagine what it must have been like to be in that mall that afternoon.  Not one of us knows how we would respond if we were thrust into the same horrific situation.   

The men who attacked the mall that day were terrorists.

But what Katherine wants her children to remember is not hate or anger.  She wants them to remember Abdul Haji and all the others who ran to the mall, straight into danger, to help them.

One day, she told me, when the girls are much older, she’ll tell them about that day at the mall.  She’ll tell them how very brave they were.  The Walton girls were brave.  And so was their mother.

Dateline NBC's hour-long special on survivors of the Westgate Mall attack, in Kenya, will air Friday at 8 p.m. ET.