An eight-man commando unit of the General Service Unit was on course to end the siege at Westgate on that fateful Saturday night.
The unit, one of the best trained in the country, had by 7pm rescued more than 500 shoppers, killed or confined the terrorists and had planned to end the confrontation by 10pm.
The team was from the elite Recce Company, which is in charge of protecting the President.
It was sent about three hours after terrorists raided Westgate in Nairobi with only two goals: rescue hostages and kill or arrest the terrorists.
The unit is a self-contained fighting team. Among its members were two snipers trained to take out a target quickly and with precision so as not to endanger hostages.
Two others are trained to break even the most reinforced of doors, two are experts in scaling walls and two others whose main job was to cover the others.
Each of the eight men was armed with an M4 rifle, a weapon that is both light and lethal and has a reputation for what experts call “easy target acquisition”.
The team had been scrambled from the GSU bases in Ruiru and Embakasi to respond to the terrorist attack. They moved into the mall in single file. At the front was Constable Martin Kithinji.
By about 7pm — five hours after they made their way into the besieged mall — the commandos had repelled the terrorists and rescued more than 500 people who were hiding in various shops.
They also ventured onto the first floor and encountered heavy fire from the terrorists.
One of the officers who talked to the Nation on condition of anonymity, said that they would have killed or arrested the terrorists by 10pm, even assuming that there were more than 10 terrorists in the mall.
He recalled how freed hostages were escorted out in batches of 10, with most of them being women. The officers, he said, had to literally drag some of the survivors out, because although they had not been harmed, they were too shaken to stand on their feet.
They also evacuated two Administration Police officers who were hiding in a room among a group of women. According to one of the Recce members, the APs had probably ran out of bullets.
However, the special team had to demand that the APs hold their weapons high with one hand, with the muzzle facing away from the officers. In most of the rooms, shaken customers and shop attendants had locked themselves inside, and would not open even after the officers identified themselves.
One of the commandos flushed his police badge to convince a woman to open a shop door. She was still sceptical and they smashed the glass door to rescue her.
The rescue team was also taken aback after a ceiling in one of the shops caved in under the weight of more than 20 people who were hiding there.
However, all were rescued as were the scores of others who had feigned death to fool the terrorists.
Then something went horribly wrong.
At about 7.30pm, the GSU men were on the first floor of the mall, making their way against a wall in single file.
Unknown to them, an equally lethal armed team of Kenya Defence Forces soldiers was approaching from another end. None was aware of the other’s presence and the meeting point was a 90-degree corner.
This turned out to be a defining moment in the rescue.
The two teams bumped into each other and opened what turned out to be friendly fire. Constable Martin Kithinji, at the head of the file, was shot in the abdomen. The area was not covered by the bullet proof vest he was wearing.
The second commando in line was hit in the leg, before he shouted “police,” alerting the military that they were not terrorists.
Under the Recce Company regulations, friendly fire is considered a worst-case scenario. Under such circumstances, a GSU officer told the Daily Nation, the rescue was called off.
And so, the GSU team withdrew — as did the military to plan a new formation. That’s why, with one fatality and injury, the GSU squad made their way out of the building.
In that confusion, the terrorists got the space to regroup, which prolonged the Westgate siege for another 72 hours. In the end, 67 people died and 240 were injured.
But there was more drama.
As the Recce Company was walking out, a commando at the rear of the file spotted a terrorist changing into the trousers he had stripped from a dead soldier. It is not clear how the soldier met his death.
The officer who talked to the Daily Nation said neither he nor his colleagues had seen the soldier. All he recalls was that the commando at the rear saw the terrorist slipping into a soldier’s trousers. He shot him dead.