WATCH: Westgate Mall attack survivor Joanne Ball-Burgess and her husband Quincy Burgess speak to Global’s Stuart Greer about how she escaped the siege.
Joanne Ball-Burgess has been a regular visitor to Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, but a simple stop into the upscale shopping centre on Saturday left her feeling lucky to be alive.
The Canadian-Bermudian woman narrowly missed being caught in the line of fire as 10 to 15 gunmen, believed to be members of the Somali militant group al-Shabab, launched an attack on the mall that left 62 people dead, including two Canadians.
Ball-Burgess said she heads to the mall a few times a week and often takes her kids on the weekend.
Born to a father from Bermuda and a mother from Saint John, N.B, Ball-Burgess is a writer and performer who has lived in Nairobi with her family for the past two years.
She told Global News she just stopped into Westgate Mall to use the ATM and went into the bathroom.
“Literally as I was walking out of the bathroom door the gunshots had started and I heard people screaming and people ran into the bathroom,” Ball-Burgess said.
She said she and a group of people locked themselves in bathroom stalls. They thought it was a robbery, but as time passed, they realized it was something much worse.
As they waited in fear, Ball-Burgess was one of many people who took to Twitter to call for help.
“When I tweeted that I thought, ‘Maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe I shouldn’t have tweeted. I don’t want to worry my parents,'” she said. “I wasn’t even sure of what was really happening. It seemed so surreal at the time.”
She managed to call her husband and tried to tell him what was going on.
Eventually her phone died. When she feared she might not make it out of the mall, she wrote her husband’s phone number on her pant leg.
But as time went on and the gunfire died down, she and the people she was huddled with decided to try to escape.
“After those three and a half hours we started to smell burnt rubber and the bathroom started filling with smoke. We thought the mall was on fire,” she said.
One of the ladies in the stall with her said there was a back door. The eight people holed up in the bathroom tried to escape through the door, but only made it to a cleaning closet before gunfire began again.
Another five or so people made it to the same closet, so shaken and fearful that some of them were sick to their stomachs.
They decided to take the chance to get out of the mall, through a nearby fire exit. Despite not knowing whether the gunmen would be in the stairwells, the group decided together to make a run for it.
“I think the flight or fright thing took over enough to say ‘We have to get out of here,'” she said.
Ball-Burgess said fear kicked in when they made it to the basement and they were in a wide-open area, making them easy targets if someone were to open fire.
Even when they made it out the door and ran about five metres to safety, she says she still didn’t know if she would make it out of the situation alive.
“When I got out of the mall and I was hysterical, the ambulance people thought that I actually had a gun wound. They thought I was hysterical because I was wounded,” she said. “But, I was hysterical because I wanted to get out of there.”
When she was able to see the news coverage of the siege on television, she realized just how close she was to the supermarket where assailants had barricaded themselves and their hostages.
She now knows how lucky she was to escape.
Other people who made it to the basement, as she did, didn’t make it out of the mall and were gunned down before they could make it to the same parking lot.
“I also feel sad for those that didn’t make it out,” she said. “I feel like everything now is a privilege, whether I’m drinking tea or watching my kids play.”
*With files from Kam Razavi