Elaine Dang pretended to be dead, and maybe because she did, she is alive to tell her story.
She survived last month’s terror attack at Nairobi’s Westgate mall. At least 67 people were killed during the four-day siege.
Amid the chaos, Dang, 26, an American expat, said she managed to keep her wits.
“In my head I was thinking, like there needs to be an answer to this. So for me, it was like, this is not it. I need to keep on thinking and find a way out,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper during an interview that aired Wednesday night.
“I said, this cannot be it.”
Dang was at a children’s cooking competition when militants stormed the mall on September 21. She heard screaming and what sounded like distant booms.
One of the presenters from the competition told everyone to run to the parking lot. At first, Dang followed, but then she stopped.
“My instinct said, don’t go with the crowd, move away from the crowd because the crowd is going to be the most vulnerable place. And so I actually moved away and hid behind one of the silver kitchen counters,” she said.
Dang fell on top of a woman and then people fell on top of her. The shooting continued.
At one point, the woman screamed, “I’ve been shot!” and blood flowed onto the floor.
At another point, Dang saw a friend stand up and raise his arms, as if to surrender. She readied herself to do the same.
But before Dang could stand up, another woman did. That woman was shot.
Dang stayed down.
After a gas canister blew up, she ran to another counter where a couple was hiding. Both the man and his wife had been shot.
Dang thought she had been too, though later she found out she was struck by shrapnel.
“I remember her looking at me and saying, ‘Are we going to die?’ It was actually the first time when I was thinking to myself, I think we are.
And I told her, ‘I think we are going to,'” Dang said.
Thoughts of her family — her brother, sister and mother — raced through her head.
She laid still and pretended to be dead.
After a while, a man walked by and told Dang that people were going downstairs. She followed them to a lobby area, where the doors were open and people were running out.
“I don’t hear gunshots so I’m thinking this is safe. So I start going,” Dang said.
Moments immediately after that were captured by photographers and broadcast around the world. In the images, Dang is seen dazed, holding a phone, with blood streaked across her face.
“I talk about it, like, sometimes like I’m very removed from the situation, but when I see the photograph and other photos of victims or people that I knew, that’s when I realize I was there,” she told Cooper, her voice breaking with emotion.
In spite of the attack, Dang said that she still considers Kenya her second home and hopes to go back. The University of California, Berkeley, graduate worked as the general manager for Eat Out Kenya.
“If anything it’s increased the love that I have for the country,” she said.