Early in the morning on August 7, 1998, two virtually simultaneous terrorist attacks struck the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Killing 257 (including 12 Americans) and wounding over 5,000, the attacks were the work of a sophisticated terrorist operation.
Almost immediately, Israel offered the U.S. its expertise in disaster rescue and cleanup and within six hours of the bombings, an Israeli rescue mission was authorized.
Early on August 8, Israel dispatched to Kenya approximately 170 members of the IDF’s Home Front Command Rescue Unit accompanied by a group of civilian and military doctors, eight search and rescue dogs, Signals and Electronics corpsmen and truckloads of high-tech rescue equipment including drills, saws, compressors, communications devices and a special inflatable rubber mat. The IDF teams began operating in the disaster site just 23 hours after it received its first order and was the first delegation to arrive on the scene from abroad.
According to the New York Times, Israel’s presence was felt immediately: “Before the arrival of the Israeli experts at 4 P.M., the rescue efforts had been going slowly and did not seem well-organized. By late afternoon, the ad-hoc team of volunteers, private contractors, engineers, Red Cross workers, and Kenyan soldiers were still trying to find a way to lift several large slabs of concrete without causing a general collapse that would doom the few people still left alive behind....But within an hour, the Israeli team had taken command...using three cranes to lift huge slabs of flooring off from above and clearing rubble with human chains.” CNN echoed these sentiments August 8, describing the initial rescue effort as an “energetic [but] ill-equipped” mission that was “changed and galvanized by the arrival of an Israeli squad of well-trained, very well-equipped, and highly experienced engineers who have done a lot of this.”
Less than seven hours after arriving at the scene, IDF rescuer Gil Weiner extricated a survivor from the rubble - a 45-year-old businessman named Gatili Nganga. On August 9, the Israeli-led team found 40-year-old Grace Odingo and her 10-year-old son Gabriel, shaken but largely unhurt, on the 21st floor of a building severely damaged by the blast.
On August 12, after three heart-wrenching, precarious days of drilling, digging, debris-clearing and sawing, the Israeli team announced that the mission was completed. Tragically, the team members’ heroic and feverish efforts to save victim Rose Wanjika, a woman who was detected alive beneath the rubble and was initially able to communicate with rescuers, fell short - she ultimately could not hang on long enough to be saved.
Nonetheless, the Israeli team was able to recover 95 bodies and save three people trapped alive in the ruins.
On August 12, the Kenyan army raised four flagpoles at the blast site to honor the four parties that comprised the international rescue coalition - Kenya, United States, France and Israel. In turn, the team members held a memorial service, laying wreaths and flowers and lowering their national flags in honor of the bombing’s many victims. That same day, in the same spirit as that of the time-honored Israeli burial tradition, three trees were planted - one for the Kenyans, one for the Americans and one for peace, in the corner of a national “freedom park.”
Praise for the Israeli relief efforts was widespread from the people on the ground to players on the world stage. Gatili Nganga, recovering after surgery that successfully reattached a severed limb, credited the IDF team with his safe recovery, saying: “If it wasn’t for the Israeli soldiers, I’m sure that today I would be dead.” A Kenyan Red Cross worker told the Israelis: “You came like angels from the sky.” An unidentified onlooker interviewed by CNN said “the Israelis were very perfect.” Upon the unit’s imminent departure, Kenya’s President, Daniel Arap-Moi, took time to meet with the team members to convey his personal thanks, as well as his country’s deeply-held feelings of appreciation.
President Clinton said Israel’s immediate and sincere response to the crisis was both “ impressive and heartwarming.” State Department Spokesman James Foley reported that “Secretary of State Madeleine Albright initiated [a] call to Prime Minister Netanyahu...over the weekend...to thank the government and the people of Israel for their extraordinary assistance in the search-and-rescue effort in Nairobi.” According to Foley, the secretary noted the Israelis’ “phenomenal role in leading the search-and-rescue efforts,” maintaining that “the experience and expertise of the Israeli teams literally made the difference between life and death for at least one victim of the blast.”