NAIROBI, Kenya — Saturdays are usually slow days in the newsroom at the Daily Nation in Nairobi, Kenya.
So when our crime reporter casually told me at midday on Sept. 21 that there was a shootout at a mall in Westlands, three miles away, I didnt make much of it.
I assumed, like many other people, that there was a robbery attempt and the bad guys had been trapped in the building.
Unlike our counterparts at The Star, we dont have a scanner to listen to police communication. The government wouldnt allow that. Crime reporters here often rely on a friend in the security services to pass on information.
But we have Twitter and I checked it immediately to see whether there would be any chatter. There were initially only a few tweets, pictures of people running away from the mall, people saying they were inside, but the trickle of information soon grew.
The lunchtime news bulletin was interrupted by breaking news, and the news anchor breathlessly spoke to someone inside Westgate, live on the phone. That phone call was cut short, and people then said, spreading the information through Twitter, that the attackers inside the mall were shooting at ringing phones.
That, for me, was the earliest indication that whoever had raided the mall was more interested in ending lives than taking anything from the shopping center.
I was in Kansas City in 2012 when there was a mass shooting inside a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and I recall speaking of the horror with a co-worker at The Star. I know many people have had similar experiences here over the past three weeks. Many colleagues have talked of sleepless nights.
By Sunday, Sept. 22 the press at Westgate had been asked to move 300 meters away and only had a partial view of the scene.
The governments disastrous communication on the situation began unfolding on Sept. 21, when the police claimed they had taken control of most of the building and pinned the terrorists down.
But activity around the scene Sept. 22 showed there was a stand-off between the attackers and the security agencies. In the evening, those involved told us they were preparing for a final assault on the terrorists.
It was not to be, and after getting drenched in a downpour later that evening as gunfire and blasts were heard in the mall, we agreed the situation had become a siege.
There was a Kansas City connection later Sept. 22 when al-Shabab, the Somalia-based fundamentalist group responsible for the attack, tweeted the names of some people they said were involved in the attack. They claimed one man was from Kansas City.
I passed that news to The Star. That was eventually found to be bad information meant to cause a distraction. Still, it shouldnt distract from the reality that al-Shabab has been recruiting vulnerable young men from America. One of the leaders reportedly killed was named al Amriki, which translates to The American.
The scariest part for many came on Sept. 23 when the eerie silence around the mall was broken by about 20 loud explosions and sustained gunfire followed by a column of thick black smoke rising from the back of the building. We took cover behind the TV vans.
But it still wasnt over because there were more explosions and gunfire.
Late on Tuesday evening, Kenyas president declared the siege was over.
Part of the mall building collapsed, leaving a huge crater with burned cars, trampolines, water and debris with bodies trapped under all that. American, British, German and Israeli forensics teams have been working with Kenyans on the scene. Kenyans have been asked to collect their parked vehicles, and the count of the losses has started.
Plenty of questions remain, and the security agencies havent helped with seemingly endless buck-passing. Some shop owners have reported thefts, and all fingers point at the security agencies.
Still, when you walk in the streets of Nairobi today, you see people going about their business, sometimes talking about Westgate when they see the headlines in the press, but overall you get the feeling Kenyans will soldier on, no matter what.
John Ngirachu, a senior reporter for the Daily Nation in Nairobi, was at The Star for five months in 2012 on an Alfred Friendly Press Partner fellowship. Follow him at Twitter.com/johnngirachu.