He’ll have shrapnel in his back for the rest of his life, a memory of providential escape.
Andrew Strickenburg, 26, was one of the five Americans wounded in the Sept. 21 terrorist attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. No Americans were killed, though the mall is a popular destination for Westerners. Most of the 61 confirmed dead were Kenyans. Strickenburg, who may have been among the first to encounter the terrorists as they approached the mall, considers it a miracle that he and the two Kenyans with him are alive.
Strickenburg left his wife Beth and 3-year-old son in their Denver home on Sept. 15 for a business trip. He traveled first to Tanzania, then to Nairobi, Kenya, to do market research for his company, a global packaging manufacturer. He had planned to go on to Ethiopia.
On the day of the attack, Strickenburg and his Kenyan guide arrived at Westgate to research packaging at Nakumatt, the main grocery store that eventually became the terrorists’ stronghold. Once Strickenburg finished examining cans and bottles and the like, he proposed the two grab lunch in the mall. The guide suggested they go elsewhere, where food would be cheaper. They walked outside and the driver from the security company overseeing Strickenburg’s trip pulled around to the main entrance. Private security firms in Kenya are not allowed to be armed.
Strickenburg climbed into the van and immediately heard shots, first distant, and then close. He felt a sharp pain in his lower back, and he, the guide, and the driver all hit the floor of the van. Bullets riddled the van, and the windows shattered, glass covering the floor. Strickenburg didn’t see the shooters before he dropped to the ground, but the guide saw a gunman standing behind their van. The guide dove on top of Strickenburg, whose blood soaked through his shirt and pants. As time passed, it soaked the guide’s shirt as well.
“I was in a fair amount of pain,” he said. “I could tell I’d been hit but not how bad. … It was very much the providence of God that they didn’t shoot into the windows as they walked past.”
The guide had some cuts from the glass, but the driver was unharmed. They could hear screaming and running past the van. They heard gunfire and two explosions. Strickenburg could smell gunpowder. After half an hour, he didn’t feel dizzy so he assumed his blood loss wasn’t life-threatening. The guide’s large body on top of his helped staunch the wound, he thinks, as well as helping to hide his whiteness.
The three played dead for a couple of hours. They couldn’t move because they didn’t know where the gunmen were and their movements would be easily visible through the glass-fronted mall. Every 10 minutes or so they could hear fresh gunfire, which Strickenburg said was “extremely discouraging.”
“You think they shoot guns and they leave,” he said. “You think the good guys will be here soon but then 10 minutes later you’d hear more gunfire. Little did we know it would be a four-day siege.”
By this point, he had lost all feeling in his left leg, and was staring at a moldy water bottle under the driver’s seat. He was sweating. He thought about his wife and home.
“I prayed the Lord’s Prayer a lot,” Strickenburg said. “I wasn’t feeling super creative at that point. I defaulted to that.”
He also thought about Daniel 3, which recounts King Nebuchadnezzar’s threats to throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a furnace for refusing to worship an idol. The three tell him, “The God we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace … but if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods …”
Strickenburg thought about that phrase, “but if not.” He thought, “God can save me, but if not, he’s still God and I will follow him.”
After an hour, the mall grew quieter. The driver was able to call the security company and learned that the military and police were outside the mall. Still they couldn’t move from the van. Another hour passed and someone from the Red Cross finally came by the van and called inside, “Is anyone in here injured?” The three responded yes, but that they didn’t know how badly. They all slid out and crawled 100 or 200 yards on their bellies to a concrete barrier. Strickenburg, though shot, was able to crawl. He saw bodies around the van in pictures afterwards, but he hadn’t noticed them in the moment. He just looked at where he had to crawl to safety.
The three made it to a scrum of ambulances, crowds, and reporters. The guide chased away reporters, and he and Strickenburg climbed into an ambulance to have their wounds checked. The gunshots had missed Strickenburg’s vital organs and major arteries. As more severely injured people started arriving, they had to get out of the ambulance. One man in the ambulance who was burned in an explosion said he had carried the body of a child out of the mall. With his guide still at his side, Strickenburg was able to limp up a hill, away from the mall, where the driver had procured another van from the security company. Along the way, Kenyans apologized for the attack and asked if they were OK.
“The Kenyan people took [the attack] very personally,” Strickenburg said. The security company van took Strickenburg to the main hospital nearby, but when doctors saw he was able to walk they turned him away because of the flood of severe injuries. “We had no idea how big this thing was.”
Thirty hours after the first shots at the mall, Strickenburg’s company got him on a flight back to Denver. The driver from the day of the attack came to take him to the airport. Strickenburg was astonished.
“He said, ‘I didn’t get hurt,’” Strickenburg recalled. “Talk about the resilience of the Kenyan people.” On the way to the airport they stopped to see the guide, and they prayed together. Strickenburg hopes to return to Kenya and see them again one day.
“I don’t want people to think Kenya is a scary, dangerous place—it’s not,” he said. “I can’t change the fact I was shot, but I can choose to not be terrorized.”
Only when Strickenburg got back to the United States and had an X-ray did he find out he had shrapnel in his back. (The shrapnel didn’t set off the metal detectors at the Nairobi airport.) The doctors recommended leaving it, which is apparently standard because surgery can be risky. Though his company encouraged him to take off as much time as he needed, Strickenburg only stayed home for a day and a half. Soon he was biking to the office, like usual.
“I didn’t see a lot of value in sitting at home,” he said.
When we talked, Denver was just getting its first, unseasonal snow. Strickenburg and his wife Beth were planning to get away for the weekend together. And Strickenburg’s toddler son came up to him to say goodbye before he went back to the office.