Embassy Bombing

At 10:30 A.M. on Aug. 7, 1998, a terrorist bomb exploded outside the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. The blast destroyed the interior of the embassy and heavily damaged the surrounding buildings.

The most severely damaged structure was the Ufundi Building, a mixed-use occupancy that had hundreds of people in it at the time of the blast. The local fire department and EMS were quickly overwhelmed by the high number of casualties - over 5,000 killed or injured - and government officials appealed for help.

Through a request from the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell, who was severely injured in the blast, the Fairfax County, VA, Fire and Rescue Department's search and rescue team - Virginia Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 (VA-TF1) - was notified by the U.S. Office Of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to begin deployment for this disaster.

We are required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and OFDA to be assembled and ready for deployment within six hours. By 4 P.M., less than five hours after being notified, our entire team of 68 members was assembled at its point of departure, the Fairfax County Fire Training Academy. We were briefed by two representatives of OFDA, Pete Bradford and Peter Henderson, who accompanied us and were the primary contacts between our team and the U.S. government.

Arrival In Nairobi

After a 16-hour flight, we arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at 4 A.M. Nairobi time. Unlike past missions, only part of our tool cache arrived with us. Because of the anticipated lack of on-site transportation of our equipment, we brought our tractor-trailer and Service 2, a 12-foot truck. We deployed with more than 56,000 pounds of equipment, including additional food and water. This necessitated two C-5 Galaxy aircraft, which arrived five hours apart.

While some members unloaded the contents of the first plane onto flatbed trucks, an advance team was sent to the blast site. The advance team surveyed the area and met with members of the Israeli National Rescue Team who had arrived at the site 10 hours earlier. We were then transported via bus to a hotel, where we were assigned rooms and dropped off our personal gear.

The advance team gave a briefing: The Israelis were focusing on the Ufundi Building, located directly behind the embassy. This was a five-story building with a two-story penthouse. It had sustained substantial damage, resulting in a pancake collapse. The Israeli commander said his team would not need any assistance from us at that time.

During the briefing, the advance team identified where our base of operation and tool cache would be set up - next to the embassy inside a secure area fenced off by U.S. Marines. We were told that, for security reasons, we were always to walk in groups. After the meeting, we walked the half mile to the site where our equipment waited. Upon our arrival, every member of the task force was needed to meet initial requirements:

  1. Setup of base operations.
  2. Search and reconnaissance activities.
  3. Setup of equipment cache.
  4. Rescue operations.

After the setup of the base of operations, the task force leader, Fairfax County Battalion Chief Michael Tamillow, began to prepare for 24-hour operations. Half the team was sent back to the hotel to eat and rest for a short period; we had already been operating for more than 24 hours with little rest. Those members returned to the site at 9:30 P.M. At that time, the task force was split into red and blue teams. The red team worked from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M. and was relived by the blue team for the second 12-hour shift. The team managers reported to the site a half hour before the rest of the team to exchange information. Rescue squads were relieved at their individual work sites. This allowed for almost continuous operations with very little down time.

At The Scene

Members who had been deployed to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 remarked about the similarities of the two disasters. Debris still covered much of the street, which the Kenyan rescue workers were clearing. All buildings surrounding the embassy sustained severe damage.

Everywhere we looked we saw broken windows, doors blown off hinges and a tremendous amount of glass covering the streets. The roof was blown off a large railroad depot about 200 yards from the site. The 25-story Cooperative Bank behind the embassy was a skeletal frame. Over-turned cars that had been burned in the blast remained in place.

Hundreds of Kenyans were working on the Ufundi Building, using cranes and other heavy equipment. Many of the embassy's windows had been blown out; several windows were still in place, but the bulletproof glass bubbled out. Several large trees were blown over. We heard the familiar sounds of jackhammers and heavy equipment and saw the cranes towering over the pile. There was the ever-present dust and the unforgettable smell of death.

Search & Reconnaissance

The recon team consisted of:

  • One search team manager.
  • Two canines and handlers.
  • One technical search specialist.
  • Two rescue specialists.
  • One structural engineer.
  • One hazmat specialist.
  • One safety officer.

The advance team members reported that the embassy had received heavy damage and needed to be searched as soon as possible. They also reported that eight people were missing in the embassy. (It would be determined later that nine people were missing at the time.)

Because only part of our search equipment had arrived and the rest was still enroute, some five hours behind, we started our recon with limited supplies. Only one fiber-optic search camera was available and small hand tools. Our canines and their handlers were our best option for search, and we obtained spray paint and markers for building marking.

From the outside the embassy looked damaged, but not to the extent we would find inside. Our recon would begin on the fourth floor, where most of the eight people reported missing had been before the blast.

Building Construction

  • U.S. Embassy - Five-story building with basement and sub-basement. Constructed of reinforced concrete. Able to withstand substantial bomb blast. Exterior remained in remarkably good condition. Interior was destroyed.
  • Ufundi Building - Five-story building with two-story penthouse. Constructed of reinforced concrete. Contained several small businesses and a secretarial college.
  • Cooperative Bank - 25-story steel skeletal European-designed building. Severely damaged.
  • Several office buildings - Reinforced concrete, most were five to eight stories. Some structural damage, but most damage was to windows and doors.

Recon of the embassy presented several obstacles we had not encountered before. The first and largest was security. Several areas of the building contained sensitive or highly classified documents, so we were required to have a member of the embassy security team with us at all times. This caused us to keep the recon group together; our structural engineer was not able to check ahead of the search team for structural hazards while the team searched. This slowed us greatly.

After recon of the fourth and fifth floors, the escort came to understand our mode of operation and allowed the structural engineer and hazmat specialist to advance with him while the canine and technical search teams searched the area behind them.

At 11 A.M., the recon team entered the embassy. From outside, the building appeared to be in good condition. Once inside on the ground floor, however, we could see that the inside was nothing like the outside. The ground floor, as with every floor, was covered with debris that was waist high. As we started up the stairway to the fourth floor, our escort, who had lost many coworkers in the blast, began to describe the scene inside the building shortly after the blast. The stairway walls were covered with bloody handprints. The floor and steps were covered with large pools of dried blood. The building had an unpleasant odor.

The building was dark and handlights were needed in most areas. As we arrived at the fourth floor, our structural engineer noticed several areas of immediate concern in the elevator lobby. The elevator doors had been blown off, leaving open elevator shafts. Many of the interior walls were made of concrete block and most were heavily damaged or knocked down from the force of the blast. He also determined that of the two stairwells, only one was stable enough to be used. In each case the areas of concern were clearly marked.

After our structural engineer surveyed the fourth floor, our canine team began its search. The dogs and their handlers worked through the waist-high rubble while two rescue specialists kept a close eye on them. Each time a dog alerted or showed interest in an area, the location was marked and noted on a hand-drawn map. The areas of interest were then checked by technical search specialists. Using the fiber-optic camera, the search of the fourth floor yielded no live finds, but many body parts were located. Search of the other four floors ended with the same results.

Two rescue squads were called to assist with the search on the ground and third floors. Their manpower was used to remove debris in areas inaccessible to the recon team. The recon team then moved to the basement and sub-basement. The hazmat specialist and safety officer found that the blast had ruptured a diesel fuel tank and the sewer line, leaving about 14 inches of fuel and raw sewage in the sub-basement. Embassy personnel had already reported there were no victims there. Regardless, we searched this area after much of the fuel and sewerage was pumped out.

Joint Recon With Israeli Team

While the embassy recon and search was underway, the Israeli commander requested our assistance in joint recon operations on some buildings surrounding the embassy. We then formed a second recon team and helped the Israeli team search three seven-story buildings and a 19-story structure. We found complete devastation. There were large blood stains under nearly every desk, and blood was caked on stairwells and handrails. It was during this operation that the U.S. and Israeli teams begin to understand each other's capabilities. After concluding the recon, the Israeli commander - impressed with our search camera - agreed to meet with us again to discuss joint operations on the Ufundi Building.

Over the next few days, we searched six more office buildings, including the 25-story Cooperative Bank, where a woman and her son were found three days after the blast hiding in a closet on the 22nd floor.

The recon team found much of the same in all the other buildings. Office hallways and stairways were covered with bloody foot and handprints and no live victims were found.

Many task force members had worked at the Oklahoma City bombing and were familiar with evidence the FBI would be looking for. Whenever pieces of cars or trucks were found inside a building, the FBI was notified and sent an evidence technician to collect it. We were asked to force entry into security vaults throughout the embassy and provided continuous assistance to embassy staff removing documents and equipment as well as providing around-the-clock medical care to the rescuers, including members of other federal agencies.

The team's medical unit was kept busy. Its primary task was to provide medical care to the team members, including the canines, and to provide immediate lifesaving intervention to victims rescued at the site. During this mission, they were responsible for the care of the staff assigned with OFDA, the embassy, the FBI, the Marines and U.S. Navy Seabees, the Diplomatic Security Service and Kenyan rescuers.

Operations At Ufundi Building

On the morning of Aug. 9, Bob Dubé and Mike Regan met with the general leading the Israeli team. He asked us to take our technical search equipment to the top of the remains of the Ufundi Building. The Israeli team had uncovered a void space and, after a canine search, wanted to use the search camera to view inaccessible areas.

Also working at the site were members of the French National Rescue Team. The French team, using its listening device, had reported tapping in the area of the void space. Regan and a member of the Israeli team entered the void with the search camera and began probing small void spaces that were off the larger one. Although we didn't find the source of the tapping, we did know where it wasn't coming from. This allowed the Israelis to concentrate their efforts in other areas.

We offered our assistance with our concrete-breaking tools and they agreed it would speed up their operations. One U.S. rescue squad and rescue sector officer with a small tool cache assisted the Israelis at the Ufundi Building. We rotated the rescue squads every two hours. A large number of Kenyans were working, using only their bare hands. Our cache contains many small hand tools such as bolt cutters, shovels and sledgehammers. These tools were offered to them and they made good use of them.

The search camera was in great demand. Our technical search specialists - Tom Griffin, Dennis Fiddler, Ed Teal and Chris Matsos - would complete one search and go right to another, working closely with the Israelis. Each group began to get a better understanding of how the other worked. The Israeli rescue sector officer felt comfortable working with the two of us, and Tamillow decided Regan would work the day shift and Dubé would work the night shift. This let us develop a better working relationship with our Israeli counterparts.

The Israeli plan was to remove or de-layer the building from the top using cranes and search each void space as it was uncovered. Most of the building had pancaked, with some lean-to voids left on one side. Using the concrete-breaking tools, our rescue specialists drilled holes in large slabs. Our Israeli counterparts ran chains through them and hooked the chains to a crane, then removed the slabs.

As we uncovered bodies, the Kenyan Red Cross moved in with a large number of people to remove them. At one point, more than 120 people were working on top of the pile. This became dangerous, with cranes swinging large slabs of concrete overhead. They would often block our personnel from moving to a safe area. A safety officer was assigned to keep our personnel aware of crane movements.

The Kenyans wanted to remove their own dead and would spend hours working to free bodies. By this time, there were only a few large slabs left to be removed and the Israelis were working on that. We refocused our efforts and began assisting the Kenyans with freeing the bodies.

Some of these removals required the use of our concrete-breaking tools and rebar cutters. Our rescue specialists used the large tools and guided the Kenyans on the best methods to free the bodies. As the rubble pile was reduced, a large track hoe began to reach into the pile and drag debris down to the street. Our personnel watched closely for exposed bodies as the machine removed the debris and stopped it when one was found. The cranes and the track hoe were operated by Israeli and Kenyan operators.

As the pile was reduced, so was our presence on the site. Many of our tools remained on the pile as they were being used by the Kenyans. As bulldozers were brought in, our personnel retrieved many of our big tools and generators, leaving only one set of concrete-breaking tools. During each 24-hour period, an average of 30 bodies were recovered. Our team operated at the Ufundi Building for 2 1/2 days.

Lessons Learned

  • Our team members had full understanding of the urban search and rescue marking system, but the markings were confusing to embassy staff members. Plain-language signs were used to warn of hazards.
  • We were unable to connect our chainsaw water hose to any local connection. Through the ingenuity of one of our rescue specialists, Mike Marks, we rigged the pump to work by drafting from a 55-gallon drum of water.

Our Return

We landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., on Aug. 16, 1998, nine days after activation. We were greeted by Fairfax County Fire Chief Glenn Gaines, OFDA/USAID dignitaries and our families. We celebrated our return at a reception at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Training Academy and were deactivated at 9:30 P.M.

Working In A Foreign Country

As this was the first overseas deployment for VA-TF1 in nearly eight years, the majority of the team had no experience working in a foreign country. The first dose of reality was getting off the plane and seeing armed guards surrounding us. When we were on the embassy grounds, we were guarded by U.S. Marines, but for most of the time we were operating outside the embassy without an escort. Diplomatic security agents also provided security at the embassy.

Two local hotels provided rooms and meals to the task force members. MREs (meals ready to eat) were consumed at the blast site.

—Mike Regan and Bob Dubé

Mike Regan is lieutenant in the Fairfax County, VA, Fire and Rescue Department and an instructor for its Technical Rescue Operations Team. Bob Dubé is captain assigned to the fire department's training division. Both are members of FEMA Virginia Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 (VA-TF1), for which Regan is an instructor. At this incident, Regan was search team manager and rescue sector officer and Dubé was rescue team manager.