The 15-Year-Old Hero

*I wrote this story about my friend Caleb Pike while I was a student at Elon. At the time both Caleb and I were juniors. It's difficult for Caleb to recount the details of this fateful day because he doesn't like to relive the situation. But after you read it, you'll learn the definition of a true American hero. I hope I did the story at least a little justice.

It was early, about 6:30 in the morning, and the traffic to work was still heavy. Caleb turned to his mother in the driver’s seat and did what most teenagers do on the last Friday of summer vacation: He complained.

“Traffic was [terrible],” Caleb said. “I was getting ready for school, and was kind of complaining about going back.” He also had contemplated requesting the day off from work, extending his last weekend of the summer to three days. But he thought to himself, “What’s one more day?”

He arrived at work in the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, at about 7 a.m. It was a typical August day. A bit overcast, but the weather was cool. It’s never too hot in Nairobi because Kenya sits on a plateau.

He went down to the basement and prepared for his day. He worked in the commissary tending the cash register, stocking product, doing general repairs. He did a few odd jobs before setting to the task of fixing a broken typewriter. He fiddled with it for a few minutes before he heard the first loud bang. He set down the typewriter and his tools and walked out of the office to see what it was. At first, he thought maybe somebody a few floors up dropped a safe. No, he told himself, it was too loud.

Seconds later, a second bang. The building shook beneath his feet. The ceiling began to fall. The emergency lights turned on. Cement chalk filled the air.

Caleb started shaking. He mentally checked himself for any injuries. None. He remained calm and immediately thought of his mother. He hoped she was OK, but at this point, there was nothing he could do to help her. The aftershock of the bomb that contacted the embassy—the second band he heard—had forced the doors in the building shut, and they couldn’t be opened from the inside. Each door, though, could be opened with a five-digit code. He walked six feet across the carpeted hall and took a quick left. His manager’s office was in a corner, and she was trapped inside. As he tried to get the PIN from his boss, some Africans who were in the travel agency next to the commissary were screaming frantically. Caleb told them to be quiet so he could get the code. Successful. He opened the door and removed Giddy Shaw from the office. Then, he went back and grabbed the Africans. He maneuvered Shaw and the four Africans down the hallway. The restaurant and mail room at the other end was in sight.

The fake tile ceiling had fallen to the ground. The carpet was a mess. The fluorescent light fixtures were hanging tenuously. They swallowed chalk as they walked.

“The chalk fills your mouth like peanut butter, or like eating sand,” Caleb said. “Afterwards, you could tell who was in the building because they had a black ring around their mouth. It was hard to breath.”

The six-person convoy got half way down the hallway. Caleb ran into a Marine who had fallen three stories down an elevator shaft. Caleb told him to come with them, but the Marine declined. He said he needed some time. His ribs were broken. The Marine told Caleb to take the stairs. Caleb opened the door to the stairwell, craned his neck and noticed it was all clear. They got up one flight but could go no further. They left the stairwell and headed for a side door. The six exited through the parking garage. At the time, they didn’t know that’s where the bomb had exploded.

About 10 minutes after leaving his basement post, Caleb reached the top of the garage and ran into the in-house doctor. She was carrying a woman out of the building. The doctor handed the woman off to Caleb and told him to carry her the rest of the way. Caleb’s party had increased by one. The doctor headed back into the building, and Caleb, holding the woman and leading five others, was back in the paradoxically pleasant Nairobi weather.

“It was chaos,” Caleb said.

Eventually, someone took the woman from Caleb. Buses and cars were on fire. The school across the street had collapsed. The woman was replaced in Caleb’s arm with some classified information. Marines at the scene were running back and forth into the building to remove some of the important classified documents and making sure no one entered. Caleb delivered the papers. He hopped in a car and was taken to the U.S. Information Services building .
He was out. He was safe. He had never run. He had never panicked. He heard within moments of leaving the building that his mother was fine. It was an intense day. He had saved six lives – seven including his own.

He was 15.

Just a normal day

When Caleb left for work early the morning of August 17, 1998, he had no reason to think anything would go wrong. And why should he? Nothing had in the preceding summer months. His mother, Judy Pike – she worked for the embassy, greeting new employees and helping them get acclimated to the city – also had felt no need to worry. In fact, no one who worked in the building at the time expected a bombing. There were no previous intelligence reports that would suggest such a thing would happen. It surprised everyone.

“You hear different rumors and threats, letter bombs and things that might [happen],” Judy said. “I got too familiar and too relaxed. I was too comfortable.”

Judy pulled into the embassy. The building sat at the corner of a busy intersection, right on the sidewalk. Embassies these days must be built away from the street. They have to be set back for security reasons. But five years ago, that wasn’t the case.

“The people who actually go overseas and work over there have the understanding that there is some sort of risk,” Caleb said. “People know that now more than before, though.”

To be sure, Caleb was no stranger to living overseas. Aside from Nairobi, he has lived in Botswana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Niger, Liberia and the United States. At the time of the bombing, his father, Col. Dan Pike, was serving as a defense attaché. It was his job to understand the military capabilities of the surrounding nations. When the bombs exploded, his father was traveling abroad.

Shortly before 10:30 a.m., as Caleb worked with the typewriter, the guards outside the embassy had their first encounter with the terrorist bombers.

Lucky twice over

The first explosion wasn’t the one that inflicted the damage. The bombers, working for al-Qaede leader and mastermind Osama bin Laden, had thrown a grenade into the guards shack to create a diversion. The real bang, which would come only seconds later, could’ve been worse.

The intention of the bombers was to drive their truck into the bowels of the parking garage. If the bomb had been set off down there, the whole building would have collapsed. But the Marines standing duty gave their lives to ensure that didn’t happen. They distracted the driver. One Marine reached through the truck’s window and grabbed the wheel. As the driver and Marine struggled, the car veered off course and crashed into the side of the building. That set the bomb off, but the blast only went up the building. It didn’t cripple the building’s infrastructure at all. It blew out windows and doors, but the building still stood.

Caleb was working in the basement after the grenade exploded. Like most people in the embassy, he was overwhelmed with curiosity after he heard the sound. He walked out of the commissary to find out what happened. In the basement, though, there are no windows, so he couldn’t see what had happened. The people on the floors above him were not as fortunate. They left their desks to look out the windows. When the second explosion occurred – the real bomb – the windows shattered inward.

“People walked towards the windows, which was a problem,” Caleb said. “It blew all the windows and shredded people. Luckily, with my curiosity, I was below ground.”

Judy remained unharmed because 20 minutes before the explosion, she had left her office to meet a new employee. After she picked up the newcomer, she headed back to the embassy. She, too, heard a thundering noise. But there was construction going on in the area, so she thought nothing of it.

“I heard it, and didn’t put two and two together,” Judy said.

Soon enough, though, she noticed the destruction and mayhem.

“Someone told me that embassy had just been bombed, and I saw the ambassador, and she had some injuries,” Judy said. “I stopped and was numb because I realized Caleb was in building. I was kind of frozen. I couldn’t move for a little bit. I was shocked, because it hit me that it really happened, and I knew he was there.

“It might’ve been about five minutes, but it seemed like forever, [until] someone saw me and yelled out to me that they had seen Caleb leave the building.”

Mother and son reunited several minutes later at home. A total of 213 people were killed – 12 of whom were Americans and the bulk of whom were Kenyan civilians and bystanders – and more than 4,000 had been wounded.

Caleb, the hero

Caleb had no military training. He worked in the commissary. He sold food. He fixed things that needed fixing. The, curly blond-haired, blue-eyed kid from Fort Bragg, N.C., was studying geometry and algebra in his high school in Kenya. Roundly shaped, but built solidly like a wrestler, his large, round head sat on his broad shoulders – a neck conspicuously missing. What did he know about emergency rescue situations?

But instinct took over for Caleb.

“I don’t mean to sound cocky, but you either have it or you don’t,” Caleb said. “I didn’t have any training, it had to be instinct.”

Certainly, fear was present. But in the anxiousness of the situation, he never acknowledged it.
“Mostly it was just confusion, like what the heck had just happened,” he said. “A lot of it was still worrying about my mom. That was about it. Maybe that’s why I stayed calm because I wasn’t thinking about too much. I’m sure I was scared.”

Judy didn’t learn of her son’s heroics until the next day. She ran into a couple of the people he had rescued. They hugged her and told her Caleb was their hero.

“I was just very proud he could handle himself despite of what he was seeing: fires, death, ruin,” she said.

Caleb’s father also had him write down everything that had happened to him. Soon after, Caleb received the Department of State Award for Heroism, one of the more distinguished awards given to a civilian.

Now a junior at Elon University, he recalls his actions proudly, but infrequently. His unassuming manner and modesty belies the strength of character he displayed on that August day. And to think, he almost called into work that day.

No comments: