CBS' Peter Greenberg Reveals His Personal Tale of Covering Mall Terror in Nairobi (Exclusive)
UPDATED: The travel editor had gone to Nairobi for a conference, but when he arrived, he reverted to his days as a newsman on the front lines of an international incident.
Early Sunday, Sept. 21, CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg landed in Nairobi, Kenya, to speak at the African Hotel Investment Forum, but as soon as he was on the ground, he learned that five hours earlier, a terrorist siege had begun at the Westgate Mall in the central city -- and his mission changed.
A former news correspondent for Newsweek, ABC News and others, Greenberg felt his adrenaline flow, and he was quickly on the scene. "It wasn't even negotiable," says Greenberg. "I said, 'I have to check this out.' "
He was jammed among a growing group of journalists stationed about 500 feet from the mall, surrounded by chaotic scenes, gun shots echoing in the distance. “That’s when it got hairy,” states Greenberg. “The authorities didn’t really establish a big perimeter for the first six or seven hours.”
There was no credible government source to brief the news media, so Greenberg and others scrapped for any information. He learned that it was what he calls “an atypical hostage situation,” meaning there was no way to know how many hostages or terrorists were involved, and the terrorists were refusing to negotiate.
“We had to think fast,” says Greenberg, “and hit the ground running. The authorities couldn’t get ahead of the story and in many cases didn’t want to because they were afraid themselves. So we weren’t waiting for press conferences. There was no direct credible information flow. We had to find out on our own what was going on.”
Greenberg was soon on the CBS radio network and broadcasting to 15 U.S. radio affiliates. It wasn’t until some hours later a producer, correspondent and camera crew from the CBS Bureau in London arrived to join him.
A Somali Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, took credit for the act of terror. They had carefully chosen a Western-style mall that attracted lots of expat Westerners and tourists as well as local residents. In terms of picking a high-profile target, says Greenberg, “These guys knew exactly what they were doing.”
Where in most such situations the authorities would cut off power, water and food to force the terrorists' hand, that wasn’t the case in Nairobi. There were plenty of supplies in the mall, including clothes to change their appearances.
Greenberg says the Kenyans debated about what to do, but soon it was clear they had few choices. “[The terrorists] said they would kill everybody and wouldn’t talk,” explains Greenberg, “so [the government] had to go in as fast as they could and try to save as many as possible, knowing they were going to lose some.”
As darkness fell, the authorities finally pushed the perimeter back another 200 feet and started a slow, methodical assault. They entered the five-story building and began to go through the 80 stores, bringing out people who had gone into hiding. Next they rescued the hostages.
Greenberg did not sleep from Sunday morning through Tuesday night and rarely left the scene -- except for a few quick trips to his hotel, about seven minutes away, for food and water.
On Monday morning, there was sporadic gunfire. Just after noon, minutes before he was to go on the air with Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King on CBS This Morning, the Kenyans' major assault began. There was “a series of deafening concussions,” says Greenberg, “explosions by grenade, which the authorities used as a distraction.”
The Kenyan forces detonated more grenades, and the terrorists shot back.
“Boom, boom, boom,” he recalls. “We were about 600 feet away. That got everybody’s attention. We had to hit the deck. There was an unbelievable amount of automatic weapons fire.”
“We were ducking,” says Greenberg, admitting that at that point he was fearful. “Bullets flying everywhere. That lasted for about three or four minutes.”
Soon, black smoke poured out of the mall from fires started by one side or the other. It was odd for Greenberg, who has been a volunteer fireman since he was 18 years old, not to see any response from firefighters. “There was no attempt to put the fires out, for good reason,” he says. “They had no idea about unexploded ammunition.”
Greenberg flashed back to 1974, when he had been a reporter on the scene in Los Angeles when police flushed out Patty Hearst and the SLA terror group amid a firefight and blasts. On that night, the concern also was unexploded ammunition. “I was pinned down for a good 30 minutes,” recalls Greenberg, “by weapons fire.”
That night back in Nairobi, numerous armored personnel carriers arrived, as wounded troops, victims and terrorists were being carried out and driven away.
It took another full day for the authorizes to clear the mall, inch by inch. After days of unconfirmed reports on deaths and casualties, in the end, there were 72 dead and more than 200 hurt.
On Tuesday, Greenberg left long enough to appear at the hotel forum, immediately returning to the scene.
To get the reports out, the CBS crew made a deal with a South African news organization, GlobeCast, to use their satellite uplink truck. “Every truck there,” says Greenberg, “was booking satellite time like there was no tomorrow.”
He knew he was in danger but never considered doing anything except what he had trained his whole life to do. He might be a travel expert these days, but he was still a newsman.
“I’m never going to tell you I wasn’t afraid,” says Greenberg. “But you go in there with your eyes wide open. It’s like the scene in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen’s character shows up at a fight on the river and asks, ‘Who’s in charge?’ And the other guy goes, ‘Nobody.’ That’s the way it was there.”
Greenberg is back home again, and his concern is the impact of such an incident on travel and tourism in Africa and elsewhere. He continues to tell his stories for CBS, on the nationally syndicated Peter Greenberg Worldwide radio show, on his website and blog and elsewhere.
On Oct. 5, Greenberg’s newest show, The Travel Detective, premieres on public television with travel tips and what you need to know before you leave home. Based on his most recent experience, that may include packing a bulletproof vest.
For more information on Peter Greenberg visit petergreenberg.com.