Video Transcript

Prudence Bushnell—Nairobi 1998:

I arrived in Nairobi in 1996, having served in the front office in the Bureau of African Affairs and having had quite a bit of experience in crises in other embassies around Africa.  It took me a nano-second to see that the building in which we were located on a very, very busy street corner, without any kind of setback – you literally went from the sidewalk up four steps and into the embassy – that that embassy was vulnerable. 

I was in communication about my concerns about the security, and asking that something be done.  Unfortunately, the Department of State had gone through years of having been starved of resources, and security like other infrastructure issues had been pushed aside.  There was no money to do anything for Nairobi, except some security upgrades, but certainly no money to build a new chancery.  

This was Friday, August the 7th, 1998.  I had gone to a meeting with the Minister of Commerce in a building that was on the other side of our very small parking lot behind the embassy and was sitting there with two colleagues from the Department of Commerce when we heard a noise, which we subsequently learned was a stun grenade.  There were about eight people in the room at the time and most of them got up to walk to the window to see what it was all about.  That in fact was the purpose of the stun grenade – to bring people to the windows.

 I was thrown back, was unconscious for just a few minutes.  The ceiling came in and I thought I was going to die.  And it was a feeling I will never forget, that this is it – “I’m going to die.”  But I didn’t. 

As I went down 21 flights of stairs with one of my Department of Commerce colleagues, I kept thinking, “I just need to get out of this building, back to my embassy, into the medical unit, and I will be all right.”    It was when we exited the building, when I saw the charred remains of what was once human beings, looked up and saw that my embassy was destroyed, that I realized there was no medical unit to go to, and I was going to have to take charge.

Response

Because the building in which I was, was so close to the embassy, my colleague and I took just a few steps before some people from the embassy – who were outside helping with the rescue mission – saw me, and – as the U.S. ambassador – they were terrified that something was going to happen to me.  So they grabbed hold of me and threw me and my colleagues into a vehicle and pounded on the vehicle to “hurry, hurry, go, go, get her away, get her out of here.” 

As soon as I was able, I went to the emergency operation center that we had set up in another part of town, and walked in, hugged some people – out of sheer delight to find them alive – grabbed a mission telephone book, handed it to somebody, and to this day I don’t know who, just handed the phonebook and said, “Go through this phone book until we can account for every single person.”  That actually took three weeks, because one of our people had been close to the bomb site, and had to be identified through DNA.  

Among the people in our embassy, we had probably 120 present in the chancery building at the time of the bombing.  We lost 32 Kenyans and 12 Americans, so 44 of our people were killed.  As most people know, any embassy depends on Foreign Service Nationals for its existence, and we certainly found that, having lost our colleagues in Shipping and Customs, in the motor pool, in Personnel and Consular Affairs, we were handicapped and in some respects almost paralyzed.  FSNs, like Americans, at the moment of the bomb, had no one, no one, on whom to rely except themselves.  There was no 911 in Nairobi, and the devastation of the bombing overwhelmed the city.  So Kenyans and Americans came out of the building, stood on the steps and went back in to rescue their colleagues.  There was absolutely no difference as to whether you were an American or a Kenyan.  You were a colleague in a moment of huge crisis. 

Personal Qualities

I had had experience, as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs for three years, with a number of different situations that had occurred in Africa, and had often served as head of the task force at the Operations Center.  So I was familiar with evacuations.  I was familiar with political unrest.  I knew exactly what Washington needed, and I knew how operation centers, emergency operation centers, needed to be conducted.  I knew how to set objectives for people.  I knew what kind of roles people needed to play.  So there was experience, number one.  Number two, I had been ambassador for two years in Nairobi, and had spent a lot of time creating a sense of teamwork among the seventeen different U.S. Government agencies that we had located there. 

Thirdly, I knew well enough to take care of myself.  When the flight attendants come on in an airplane and tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before you help your child, they’re not kidding.  If as a leader I did not know how to take care of myself, how to go home, how to store up my energy, how to appear as healthy and calm as I could, I don’t think I would have demonstrated the kind of leadership that was desperately needed at that time.  And it’s terribly easy to be seduced into the continuation of an adrenaline rush, and thinking that you as the leader or somebody important has to be there at all times.

I found as a person that I had a depth of anger and a depth of compassion, I never thought was within me.  And I felt both.  Professionally, I learned a huge amount about leadership – and particularly leadership during crisis.  And I’ve continued to focus quite a bit on leadership during crisis, because of course since 1998 we have as an American people experienced September 11, 2001.  We have experienced Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.  We have experienced the war in Iraq.  We have seen terrorist events around the world, and I think we have come to realize that, as lucky as we Americans are, we are not immune from disasters.

Advice

I would advise anyone going overseas to take our security training very seriously, to participate in the crises management exercises that are held at post every two years and if possible to volunteer, if you’re in Washington, to serve on a crisis task force, so that you get a sense of what happens from a Washington perspective – as you can get a sense of what happens overseas from participating in crisis management exercises.  I would then say, “Go out and enjoy yourself, because there is absolutely no point in worrying about what is going to happen to you – because what is going to happen is going to happen.”  Worrying doesn’t make any difference.  And if you have joined a community and if you have put your energies into participating in a community, and if you have gone through training about what to do during a crisis, just depend on yourself and one another, and you can get through it.