NAIROBI, Kenya - Her husband back home in the United States, Katherine Walton did what she usually did when he traveled. She took her five children to the Westgate mall just five minutes from their Nairobi home to do some shopping.
The mall has a toy store and was holding a cooking competition for kids Saturday, the same day that Islamic terrorists would attack the mall with machine gun fire in a terrifying assault that the Walton family was at the heart of.
When the family arrived they immediately ran into some bad luck. The passenger door to their truck wouldn't shut. After lunch, the two Walton sons went to buy some rope from the Nakumatt supermarket downstairs in the mall.
Walton, 38, met the boys there with her three daughters at the store, which was about to become what some survivors described as a slaughterhouse in a siege that would last four days and take the lives of at least 72 people.
"As I came down the stairs to come to just outside the store where they were, the explosions started and the gunfire," she told USA TODAY.
With nowhere to run, an injured Kenyan lady scooped up 4-year-old Portia and gestured for Walton to hide herself and the children behind a small stand. For the next four hours, the family was trapped in a real-life hell, as blasts reverberated around the shopping mall where the only other sounds were screams and pop music playing over the mall audio system.
"My 2-year-old immediately, she just crawled up in fetal position facing the floor and just stayed in a ball, with her head kind of covered looking into the ground for hours," she said.
"She was so still that I kept touching her to check that she was still breathing as it was almost like she was asleep," despite grenade blasts shaking the floor, she added.
"I had no idea that they were throwing grenades at the time," but she could smell the burning and other "unpleasant" things the group couldn't fathom.
Somali terror group al-Shabab has said it launched the attack in revenge for Kenya's participation in a force that liberated the Somali capital of Mogadishu from the terror group's control. It has claimed that well over 100 people were killed, including hostages thought to have died when part of the mall collapsed during battles between the terrorists and the Kenya security forces.
They had scarves around their necks and were wearing tan or gray khaki clothing. None was large, but all were carrying guns that seemed oversized for them, a "comical" juxtaposition, Walton said.
Some Kenyan officials have suggested that Americans and Britons were involved in the attack. A few witnesses claim to have heard or seen a white British woman leading the gang. That sparked suspicions that Samantha Lewthwaite, a British subject who converted to Islam and is known as the "white widow," was behind the attack.
Lewthwaite's onetime partner, Germaine Lindsay, father of her three children, blew himself up in 2007 London metro bombings, and Lewthwaite is said to have escaped arrest at a raid on a home in Mombasa, Kenya's second biggest city on the coast.
Walton saw two "small and thin" gunmen speaking a foreign language, but was busy trying to pacify her 13-month-old baby, who was often crying. Two women hiding with them "were saying, 'Make her be quiet.'"
At Shah Hospital in Nairobi, spokesman Colin Collins said some patients were telling them they were shot by a woman.
"One man said to me, 'She was very tough, shooting everywhere, and she kept following me as I ran,'" Walton said of a man who eventually made it out of the mall.
Kenya Interior Minister Ole Lenku has said there are "an insignificant number of bodies left in the mall" but others who were there said they saw many bodies lying about when the mall collapsed, perhaps from heavy grenades fired by Kenyan forces.
Walton said during the ordeal she called her son on his cellphone and told him to hide and not come out. She and the Kenyan lady used their bodies to cover the children and "prayed over them."
The two boys hid behind flour stores in the supermarket bakery. A Nakumatt meat-counter worker who was shot in the legs said that after letting some people go and executing others, he heard the gunmen take a break to drink some soft drinks and then call out for survivors, promising them they could go.
"I heard some ladies call out. I wish they hadn't. I wish they'd held on, because I heard them get shot in cold blood," Fred Bosire told AFP news agency.
Husband Philip Walton, a 39-year-old information technology worker, said that his sons had not recalled this, but a lady who hid with them heard two calls by men claiming to be police that they didn't trust.
"The third time there was a voice and the tone was very different and that's when they decided to get out, and it was, in fact, the good guys," he said.
Katherine believes her group's survival was a miracle.
"I say God hid us in plain sight, as when I looked at the terrorists, it was almost like they were looking directly in our direction," and another watching from a floor up could not have missed them, she says.
It turned out they were not rescued by police forces, but by men from the surrounding community, mostly Asian Kenyans, who armed themselves and confronted terrorists armed with automatic weapons.
Abdul Haji, the son of a former Kenyan security minister, is one of them. He is being called a hero for providing cover fire to help evacuate some 1,000 shoppers. He persuaded the women to run to him, as tear gas to ward off attackers filled the air.
A photograph of the Walton's 4-year-old, Portia, fleeing to Haji's outstretched arms, holding a gun, made front-page news. He called the little girl "very brave" and said it gave him motivation. Portia said it was because Haji resembled a family friend from church that she made her dash.
Choking when asked how he felt about Haji, Philip Walton says he owed him "an eternal debt of gratitude."
"I look forward to the day when I can shake Abdul Haji's hand and personally thank him for his willingness to risk his life to save my family," he said.
Rather than deterring them from staying in Kenya, the Waltons say that the community's actions have strengthened their resolve to stay in this "great country." The Waltons have spent many years in West Africa, and the last two in Kenya. Before Nairobi they lived in San Antonio, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C.
As forensic teams continue to comb the mall where people and attackers are thought to lie beneath collapsed floors, Philip says his "heart breaks for those families who are still waiting with hope, not knowing the outcome of their loved ones" and not able to mourn or rejoice.