Cape Town -
All Colleen Thomas could do was wait and pray as she willed the phone to ring in her Little Mowbray home.
Her husband James had been in the Kenyan capital Nairobi when the multi-storey Westgate shopping mall was stormed by a group of armed attackers believed to be from the al-Qaeda-inspired Somali militant group al-Shabaab on Saturday.
But any hopes the 57-year-old was still alive were dashed shortly after midday on Sunday when she received the news: he had been among at least 68 people gunned down during the massacre that began around noon.
Thomas, who had been in Kenya to conduct an entrepreneurial training programme for the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, was among at least six South Africans in the mall during the attack.
Police sources who had entered the building on Sunday evening said they feared the death toll could be “much, much higher (than 68)… judging from the bodies sighted inside” and that the attackers continued to fight back.
The Red Cross estimated the number of injured at about 200, with 49 others missing.
Among those killed were two diplomats – one from Canada and another from Ghana. The son of acclaimed Ghanaian poet and former UN envoy Kofi Awoonor, 78, was wounded in the attack.
Governments confirmed that foreign victims included Thomas, three Britons, two French citizens, two Canadians, a Chinese woman, two Indians, a South Korean and a Dutch woman.
The news of Thomas’s death had come as “a terrible, terrible shock” to the family, said their pastor and long-time friend David Meldrum.
He spent Sunday consoling Colleen, daughter Julie and foster son Sipho at their home. Another daughter, Sarah, is in Italy.
Meldrum told the Cape Argus the family was distraught and were not ready to speak to the media about his death.
As the Cape Argus was going to press, it was reported that Kenyan security forces, apparently backed by Israeli agents, had moved in to try to end the bloodbath.
“Godspeed to our guys in the Westgate building,” Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre said in a message on its Twitter site. “Major engagement ongoing.”
At the time, the Islamist militants were still holed up with an unknown number of hostages.
Late on Sunday afternoon, brief volleys of gunfire interrupted hours of stalemate. A Reuters correspondent saw security personnel on the move and as dusk closed in, two helicopters swooped over the mall.
For hours after the brazen attack by between 10 and 15 attackers, the dead were strewn around tables of unfinished meals.
The assault was the largest single attack in Kenya since al-Qaeda’s East Africa cell bombed the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
In 2002, the same militant cell attacked an Israeli-owned hotel on the coast and tried to shoot down an Israeli jet.
In a speech to the nation on Sunday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said that while more than 1 000 people had been rescued from the mall, the attackers were still holding out.
“The criminals are now all located in one place within the building… we have as good a chance to successfully neutralise the terrorists as we can hope for,” he said.
In Cape Town, Meldrum said Thomas had joined a corporate group to visit the mall but had gone wandering off at some point during the day. “While the rest of the group managed to hide and survive, James was killed.”
While the entrepreneurial trainer’s job had taken him all over the world, the pastor said Thomas’s favourite place had been at home with his family.
“He was a real family man and he had a great sense of humour… And there was this part of him that just wanted to see everyone grow.”
He had regularly attended St Peter’s Anglican Church in Mowbray and had also been chairman of the Cape Town Youth Choir.
Meldrum said plans were being made to transport his body back to South Africa.
Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Marius Fransman said he would be working closely with Kenyan authorities to make sure this process was completed as soon as possible.
Fransman visited the family on Sunday “to personally convey the deepest condolences of the government and particularly of President Zuma”.
“I want to note that Mr Thomas was a true patriot because he worked on development issues,” Fransman said, adding that he had helped boost youth entrepreneurship and combat youth unemployment.
Friends rallied on Facebook to offer words of support for the family.
“James, your love, your smile and your big bear hugs will be remembered. Strength to the family,” wrote Roslyn Williams.
Chris Eksteen posted: “You were my friend for 50 years and our families go back even longer. Your laughter, hugs and solid advice will be missed by all. Rest in peace my dear friend.”
Another wrote how the 57-year-old’s profile picture perfectly captured his fun-loving attitude towards life.
According to Jacaranda News, Christian missionary Jako Hugo, his wife Karin and 13-year-old son Maureece were among the South Africans in the mall. They had hidden in a cinema to escape the attackers and were eventually rescued.
South Africa’s high commissioner to Kenya, Super Moloi, reported that a South African couple had been rescued after spending 24 hours hiding in a fire escape.
Moloi helped an unnamed relative of Thomas, who had also been in the mall, identify his body in a morgue. Earlier, he said his staff were still checking hospitals and mortuaries for any other South Africans who had been wounded or killed in the attack.
He described how one South African couple resident in Nairobi had been communicating with the high commission from inside the mall just after the start of the attack.
They were rescued by Kenyan security forces about 24 hours later.
Another South African woman with her two young children had been rescued on Saturday evening.