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Kenya’s Blinded, Near-Blind Wait, Pray

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The thousands of people injured in the terrorist attack at the U.S. Embassy here are hungrier than ever for news about the chase for suspects. Newspapers are selling like hot cakes, and television broadcasts are filled with reports about the likely trials in New York.

But for Douglas Siadolo, the only connection to the outside world is a crackly portable radio in his hospital room. Siadolo, 27, was caught in traffic outside the U.S. Embassy when the bomb exploded. He looked out the window--and hasn’t seen anything since.

“My right eye is finished, so they removed it right away,” Siadolo said from his hospital bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. “I keep praying they will be able to save my left eye. Right now, I can only make out bright light.”

More than three weeks after the near-simultaneous embassy bombings here and in Tanzania, hospitals are emptying of blast victims, and exhausted doctors are taking their first days off. But the eye ward at Kenyatta National Hospital, the country’s biggest, is as busy as ever.

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About 500 people received eye injuries in the explosion here, most of them from flying fragments of windows that were shattered almost as far away as a mile from the embassy. At least 20 people were rendered irreversibly blind, and 64 others are so severely injured that their chances of recovering full vision are slim.

The devastating ocular toll is being blamed on a tragic blend of innocent curiosity and out-of-date building standards.

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When the terrorists exploded a grenade just moments before detonating the car bomb, everyone rushed to see the commotion. The blast that followed caught wide-eyed office workers, motorists and bus passengers pressed against their windows, many of which were made of low-quality glass that splintered into thousands of droplet-sized shards.

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Kenyan authorities say many of the 250 people killed in the attack were also victims of the broken glass; bits of windows have even been found inside the lungs of survivors, doctors say. The only people spared the rainstorm of glass were those inside the embassy, which was equipped with shatter-resistant safety glass, as all U.S. embassies are required to be.

“In Beirut, if you hear an explosion, you run and take cover,” said Dr. Marina Gondi, head of the Kenyatta eye ward. “But we in Kenya have no experience with such things. We all ran to the windows.”

The result has been the worst single contributor to blindness in Kenya’s history. During the first hours after the bombing, emergency room surgeons removed dozens of eyeballs ripped apart by “tiny glass missiles,” as one ophthalmologist described the airborne particles. Hundreds of more fortunate victims still have their eyes, but they are walking around Nairobi with partial sight that may or may not get better.

“We don’t even have enough counselors or rehabilitation officers to cope with the number of victims,” said Peter M. Muasya of the Kenya Society for the Blind, which conducts a yearlong therapy program for the newly blind. “We are having to appeal for [financial] support so that we can begin training new people.”

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Last week, when the German Embassy brought in a team of eye specialists from the Munich Eye Hospital, more than 300 people lined up at Kenyatta hospital to be examined. Dr. Klaus Ludwig, the surgeon who led the team, worked 18-hour days for five days repairing detached retinas and torn corneas on 42 of the most severely injured patients.

“It is important for them to have hope to go on, and that is what we have given them,” said Wolf-Rainer Kruska of the University of Nairobi’s College of Health Sciences, who assisted the visiting team. “We have so many patients who cannot afford to go abroad for this kind of medical care.”

In the whitewashed seventh-floor hospital rooms of Kenyatta’s eye ward, patient after patient tells of being blinded by a blizzard of glass, most of which descended from the 23-story Cooperative Bank House. The 20-year-old building, two doors down from the embassy, had a glass facade--known by architects as a “curtain wall"--that was sheared from the high-rise by the blast.

Ernest Likami, a warehouse clerk, was visiting a friend on the 18th floor when he went to the window. His left eyelid was ripped in two, and doctors are still trying to save the eye. Barnabas Okwogo, a math teacher, had delivered a report to the offices of a teachers union on the 12th floor when he peered out the window. The glass pierced a hole through his left eye.

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Paul Okello, an accountant, was in his fourth-floor office in a building across the street. He pulled the curtain to look outside; the fabric shielded his right eye, but his left eye was riddled with bits of glass. Jackson Kieru, a high school teacher visiting from eastern Kenya, was meeting with national examination officials on the fifth floor of another nearby building when he looked outside. It is still uncertain if his left eye can be saved.

“We were just coming back to summer school from a picnic,” said Sandeep Sadva, 13, who has had two operations on his right eye and shares a hospital room with a 7-year-old classmate who keeps his eyes buried in a pillow. “The glass came flying into the school bus from the buildings. One pupil had his eye come out.”

Glass curtain walls are increasingly popular among architects in Nairobi, as evidenced by the city’s newly glimmering skyline. But the country’s building code, including requirements on the manufacture and use of glass, is still largely based on colonial-era standards adopted from Britain, long before glass construction came into vogue.

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Thirty-five years after independence, the building code in this country, which straddles the Equator, still includes British provisions from the 1950s related to snow. The Kenya Bureau of Standards is gradually updating the requirements, but civil engineer Ratna M. Hirani, who serves as a consultant to the bureau, said the independent agency has not yet turned its attention to glass. There are no special requirements, for example, for a stronger, higher-quality glass in curtain walls, something that might help reduce shattering.

“The building code itself is quite good, but we are still trying to get the best standards suitable for Kenya,” Hirani said. “The blast may change the pace and content of the code on glass, which has been in the pipeline for at least two years. I hope the people on the [glass] committee will learn from this and other experiences around the world.”

Michael Jeremitsky, the Israeli architect of the bank building, said the high-rise was designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 7, but until Aug. 7, nobody in Kenya, including himself, worried about windows being shattered by a terrorist bomb.

In Israel, by contrast, Jeremitsky is building a three-tower office complex in Tel Aviv, and all three high-rises are being equipped with shatter-resistant safety glass, he said.

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“After what happened here, we will try to pressure the authorities to include a lot of new specifications in the building code,” said Jeremitsky, who is already refurbishing the bank building.

Several years ago, Jeremitsky said, the bank offices were remodeled and the internal glass partitions fitted with safety film. The panels cracked during the explosion, he said, but they did not shatter.

“That probably saved hundreds of people working inside the building,” he said.

For those unlucky enough to be on the outside, the hope to see again rests with the skillful scalpel of Ludwig, the German surgeon, who is expected to return to Nairobi in several months for follow-up procedures.

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Among those most anxious about the German doctor’s handiwork is 19-year-old Benson Atema, who was born mute and was traveling past the embassy in a bus when the bomb exploded. Atema lost the vision in both his eyes.

After a lengthy and complicated surgery on both eyes, Atema was sitting up last week in his hospital bed, his sight improved enough that he could communicate with friends through sign language.

“I can see!” he exclaimed.

* VILLAGE IN SHOCK: Muslims in dusty village of Witu lived alongside a top suspect in Nairobi bombing. A11

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