09/24/2013 12:14 EDT | Updated 11/24/2013 05:12 EST

Kenya mall attack survivor recalls chaos

Freelance reporter Arjen Westra was in Nairobi's Westgate Mall having a coffee when the shooting began, and saw a full range of responses as people made snap decisions about how best to survive.

“There was a lot of screaming, some people were crying, some people were holding each other," Westra told CBC Radio's The Current. "Different reactions. Some people just stayed calm, quiet.”

- Audio and video: Hear the survivors' stories in their own words

At least 16 al-Shabaab militants attacked Saturday, wielding grenades and firing on civilians inside the mall, a five-storey labyrinth of shops, restaurants and offices.

Westra, who is from The Netherlands, was in the coffee shop Artcaffeé when he heard a small explosion, then "a non-stop automatic firing of bullets."

Westra told host Anna Maria Tremonti that his first decision was to stay put, because he could hear the gunfire moving away from the café. "I thought, 'If I walk out in the open I will be a walking target.' So I decided to drop myself on the ground and hide together with a few other people."

The firing subsided for a moment, but then moved closer.

"We really had to start moving, so that's when we crawled, basically, to the terrace, where at that time there was no shooting going on. We stayed low, we stayed low, and we moved on the terrace and then I got out safely ... Behind my back the shooting was getting more intense. It really sounded like they were inside [the café]."​

Westra said he believes he was one of the first people to successfully flee the mall. He never saw the shooters. "When I left the café, some people decided to stay. I had a feeling I had to flee because the gunfire was moving towards Artcaffeé at that very moment. I don’t know if it’s an intuition, or I don’t know what it was. But I just did apparently what I had to do to stay alive, together with other people. We kind of agreed we should move.”

In the initial moments outside, there were no ambulances for the heavily bleeding casualties he could see. "People were being put in private vehicles, even in supermarket trolleys ... It was panic and chaos."

The militants specifically targeted non-Muslims, and at least 18 foreigners were among the dead, including two Canadians, as well as citizens from the U.K., France, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China.

Nearly 200 people were wounded. Two sisters from Toronto, 17-year-old Fardosa Abdi and 16-year-old Dheeman Abdi, were seriously injured. Their aunt Hodan Hassan said from her home in Minnesota that Fardosa was in critical condition with severe leg injuries.

The attack in Nairobi's Westlands neighbourhood was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 al-Qaeda truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which killed more than 200 people.

Among the survivors of Saturday's attack were the 22 staff and patients at Dr. Sunil Sachdeva's dental clinic on the mall's fourth floor. Sachdeva was treating patients around 1 p.m. local time when he heard the first shots ring out.

Sachdeva told CBC News he ushered his patients and their parents in the reception room into a corridor and locked it down, muting phones and switching off the lights.

"And we just literally held our breaths and waited," he said. Peeping from the windows, Sachdeva said he and his patients saw fleeing shoppers "sprayed" with gunfire as they tried to run outside. Some ran, then collapsed.

When Kenyan military arrived to help his staff and patients escape, Sachdeva said he took time to assess the carnage around him. There were spent shells littering the ground, as well as an unexploded grenade, he said. "When I looked around the rooftop, I counted about 12 bodies, all covered with red sheets," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "We formed kind of a human chain guiding these people and taking care of the injured and taking care of people who were fainting ... A lot of people just came out and fell on their knees and broke down crying."

American Sara Head had just arrived at the mall when she heard the gunshots and ran and hid in a stairwell.

"There were two people there in the stairwell with me who had superficial wounds from gunshots," she said. "We were eventually able to leave after an hour and a half through a supermarket. There was quite a bit of panic in the stairwell, particularly when people were trying to decide whether they should go up or down or what they should do."

People kept quiet and texted loved ones, eventually fleeing to safety after about 90 minutes. "I was very hesitant to go out, not knowing if it was safe or not," Head said. "And even as I was in the store and was exiting, I just looked at the ground and kept walking forward."