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The Other Side of the Fence—The Spouse’s Experience of the Nairobi Bombing

As Richard A. Buckley watched the uncensored footage of the remains of what was just earlier the U.S. Embassy Nairobi building, a feeling of complete despair washed over him. With limited information, all he knew at that moment was that his wife, Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, had been at the embassy that day and was either in grave danger or worse.

The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the aftermath of the August 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing.jpg (1998) DS Records | Wikimedia
The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the aftermath of the August 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing.jpg (1998) DS Records | Wikimedia

Being a spouse to a Foreign Service Officer can come with a variety of challenges and unique experiences. While Buckley knew he could handle this lifestyle, this incident in particular was nothing he had ever expected or prepared for. The terrorist bombing on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya in 1998 left twelve Americans dead and approximately four thousand people injured, including Buckley’s wife, Ambassador Bushnell, who miraculously survived the deadly explosion. Richard A. Buckley recounts this horrific event in the perspective of not only a Foreign Service Officer spouse, but also provides us insight on the terrifying experience of almost losing a loved one.

To learn more about Ambassador Bushnell’s own experience of the Nairobi bombing, read this “Moment” HERE.

Richard A. Buckley’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on April 26, 2018.
Read Richard A. Buckley’s full oral history HERE.

Ambassador Prudence Bushnell’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on July 21, 2005.
Read Ambassador Prudence Bushnell’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by: Melissa Cooper

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“This was the first time during our life in the Foreign Service that I was concerned about Pru’s safety.”

The Irrepressible Prudence Bushnell |
The Irrepressible Prudence Bushnell |

A Bad Feeling:
Two days before the bombing, August fifth, she flew to the border of Somalia and Kenya because the problems had already started and the Somalis were trying to come into Kenya and do bad things there. There were already large refugee camps in Kenya of refugee Somalians. She went there to interact and try to persuade people that, “Maybe you ought to start asking your relatives to make a way for you to get back home.”

This was the first time during our life in the Foreign Service that I was concerned about Pru’s safety. There was something gnawing on me while she was away on the visit to the Somali refugee camp, that was the first time I ever felt that something’s going to happen.

Pru’s experience will differ a lot from mine especially since she lived through it from the beginning until we departed.

Q: Had there been any alerts or concern about this outside of the general one for the Foreign Service?

BUCKLEY: No, I knew nothing. Pru did not disclose any embassy security issue to me, I knew nothing about any security concerns.

Q: If there is a real threat the whole group would be informed, families and all.

BUCKLEY: The major threats were the violence that was happening in and around Nairobi from strikes – bank strikes and student strikes. The embassy periodically would get gassed by drifting smoke caused by police chasing the students and trying to tear-gas them. But there were never any threats although I subsequently learned that – we didn’t know at that time but Pru and the country team were aware of threats made by al-Haramain, another organization that was going to bomb the embassy. The embassy security officers provided the information to Kenyan officials and President Moi had the group removed from Kenya.

“Then I felt that this was going to be a terrible incident.”

(1998) Office of the Director of National Intelligence 1998 Press Releases | Wikimedia
(1998) Office of the Director of National Intelligence 1998 Press Releases | Wikimedia

An Ill-Fated Day:

On August the 7th – a Friday – I was at home, just getting ready to go to our travel agency to pick up our tickets to go on safari. My birthday was August 16th so Pru was treating me and herself to a safari in Masai Mara again for a long weekend down there. I heard the explosion, but the residence was about 10 miles from the embassy so we thought it was one of those big trucks that usually blow a tire on the road out in front of the residence. As I walked through the kitchen to get to the garage when Sela the cook said “Have you heard?”

I said, “What?”

He said, “The embassy area has been bombed.” He got the information from the guard at the gate who had a walkie-talkie—a radio-phone that all embassy personnel had—he heard some details that the embassy had been bombed and told Sela. I went back upstairs to get my telephone/radio, and started to listen to the same information, and then came downstairs and snapped on the TV and to my utter amazement, I watched the horror as it happened before Pru would even see it because she was still trying to get out of the 21st floor of the building right across from the embassy. I was watching it because the photographers at the beginning of the meeting with the minister of commerce on the 21st floor with Pru had left, and had reached their vehicles when the bomb went off. They had their equipment and what we saw then on the TV was raw footage, uncensored, right through their machines into the studio and then broadcast. It was a horrific scene.

Then I felt that this was going to be a terrible incident. For me, it’s…

Q: You didn’t know where Pru was?

BUCKLEY: I should have because Linda Howard, her office manager always sent home for me her daily schedule card. I don’t know whether I looked at it that day or knew, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to go find it. I didn’t have her schedule, no. That’s the only way I would know.

While I’m watching this on TV, I got a phone call – our local phones were still working – from our neighbor, a Lebanese woman married to a Swiss banker who lived nearby. Samira was her name, a very tall, red-headed, very striking woman who befriended us from the first day we arrived. She always befriended the American ambassador and spouse because she loved to attend our parties. She said, “Richard, have you heard, have you seen?”

I said, “I’m watching now.”

She said, “We were in the Hotel Stanley downtown when it happened! We just got home. This huge volume of smoke came from down around the embassy and then we saw all kinds of papers flying through the air, all over the streets.”

She had been only a few blocks away from the embassy.

She said, “Come over to the house, we’ve got the English channels that are giving more information than you get locally” (because locally, you’re just getting raw footage).

I took my radio from the embassy over to her house because they were getting information from London about the other bombing which we weren’t getting in Nairobi because everybody was focused on Nairobi, so they got the information about Dar Es Salaam. And also, there were reports that two other embassies may have been hit, and we subsequently learned that there were two other embassies that may have been identified to be bombed, but weren’t. One was Uganda.

So, we are getting all that information from British TV. I finally said, “Maybe I better go home.”

She said, “Wait, wait.”

Finally, Pru called me on the handheld radio/telephone and said, “Stay home! I’m all right, don’t come near the embassy” and asked me to call her father and mother. Which I did. They called the rest of the family.

That was about an hour and a half after the bombing. A lot had happened in the area of the embassy that I was totally unaware of. But I stayed with Samira and then as we arrived at the residence, we came in right behind Pru and her car – she was coming home to change and to go to the children’s hospital, which is right down the street from us, to get her lip stitched. I went inside, she said “I’m going to get a stitch and then return to the USAID building” where they had now resumed their control and command center.

Samira said, “I’ll take you there” and Pru went into Samira’s car and they went to the children’s hospital and Pru had her lip stitched and she went to the USAID building.

“I know that mine was going to be changed forever, going through the next few months living with her.”

August 7th Memorial Park (2010) Jorge Lascar | Flickr
August 7th Memorial Park (2010) Jorge Lascar | Flickr

The Aftermath:

Then about 10:00 that evening, Pru came home, very wiped out as you can imagine, and her hair and suit drenched in blood, most of it from other people. She had intended to take a bath, but she was so tired she just crashed with her clothes on, she just barely got her clothes off and went to sleep. It wasn’t until the next morning, Saturday, that she got into the bathtub – her hands were bandaged also – and had me shampoo her hair, because it was very mangled.

She mentioned to me that morning something to the effect that, “Richard, I think my life has changed forever because of this incident; I can feel that.” I know that mine was going to be changed forever, going through the next few months living with her.

I joined her subsequently because it was Saturday morning and I knew a lot had to be done, and I could possibly assist in some of the affairs that were going to happen. The CLO [Community Liaison Officer] was there, embassy doctor was there, and she told the CLO and me that the regional psychiatrist in Cape Town, South Africa, had called and he recommended that a critical incident stress-debriefing be held as soon as possible, for as many members of the mission that could be convinced to attend. That became my assignment. The only place to hold it was in the residence. We planned it on the weekend. On Monday we did the recruiting for people to attend the meetings. We held the debriefing sessions on Tuesday through Thursday.

Then through the CLO we matched older people like me that knew the wife or husband of the Americans that were killed in the bombing to go to their homes, to be available to assist them in any way that we could. Since I knew Michelle O’Connor very well because she was the BFO [Budget and Fiscal Officer] of the embassy and I was the accountant/auditor of the financial books, we had a lot of interaction. So, I volunteered to go to her home and meet with her husband and three kids, mostly with the husband.

I also knew Julian Bartley’s family fairly well, so I volunteered to also go to Sue’s house, Sue Bartley who lost both her husband – (Julian’s body had not been located for two days) but her son had already been identified as being one of those killed instantly inside the embassy.

I went to both of their homes. I spent a lot of time at Sue’s house, because there were a lot of people who congregated at her place since Julian was very popular in the Nairobi community.

Q: You mentioned she was BFO, that’s budget and fiscal officer.

BUCKLEY: Right. That was how we spent most of the Saturday until the following Friday.

Q: How were the people reacting, that you talked to? Were they dazed, angry?

BUCKLEY: Michelle O’Connor’s husband was wiped out. He didn’t really know what to do. Fortunately, the CLO was going to have someone come over to really take him through the steps of how to get ready to depart, who can assist him and everything. He needed basic assistance because he was relatively new to the Foreign Service way of life. Sue Bartley was a trooper. She had been to six or seven overseas postings. She still held out hope that Julian was in the hospital somewhere. She was desperately trying to not lose more than her son at that point. There were all kinds of people around assisting her, so I was just sitting there trying to assess the situation and what was happening.