SAN DIEGO - The young woman from San Diego who survived a terrorist attack in Kenya gave her first extensive local television interview to 10News Anchor Kimberly Hunt Tuesday afternoon.
Elaine Dang revealed new information about her thoughts during the September attack and about her life now, including how she's moving beyond the event that captured global attention.
Dang is scarred, still has shrapnel under her skin, has no health insurance and needs long term care -- both physically and emotionally -- but she is clear about moving forward so she can help the world in different ways, including with teaching in Kenya.
"Humanity can be so beautiful," Dang said, as she referred to the people who came to help at the mall that day. It was one part of the interview when she became emotional.
Day of the Attack
She was meeting coworkers at Nairobi's upscale Westgate Mall when gunfire broke out. Terrorists with ties to al-Qaida unloaded a flood of gunfire and grenades into crowds of unsuspecting shoppers. Those who were not hit dodged bullets and crawled to safety.
Dang said she sometimes becomes emotional when she sees pictures and video from the attack, which killed dozens of people and injured more than 150 others.
"I've kind of mastered the ability to kind of re-tell it like a movie," Dang said through tears. "And it's not until I see photos that, you know, really triggers how real it was."
Dang said the emotion was more for Kenya than it is for herself. She said she's against the hatred that caused the attack and is saddened because she loves Kenya and considers it her second home.
She described vivid memories of that day once it was clear the mall was under attack.
"My initial instinct was to run," she recalled.
"A big part of me was in disbelief that this was happening," Dang said. She described herself as feeling disconnected from what was happening around her, in order to keep calm and think clearly.
Then she shared something for the first time.
"I haven't really shared this, but it's actually at this time when I - I knew something really bad was happening, and I was ... I unzipped my bag to grab my phone and I was actually planning on calling my sister to tell her i loved her," Dang said. "I picked up the phone, it flew out of my hand, so i thought, 'Ok, I can't do that,' and it was at that time the lady underneath me screamed that she had been shot. And I looked down and I saw that she was bleeding... By luck, by chance, I was just right above her."
Dang said the woman asked her, "'Are we doing to die?' I told her, 'I think we're going to die.' I was... very calm."
At one point, Dang said she thought, "This is just my time," and then later also thought, "If I make it out of here, what do I do?"
She also thought about her family a lot.
"I thought, 'It's OK, it's going to happen and I will find a way to communicate with my family,'" she said.
She did make it. She played dead for some time, and eventually a man passed her and told her everyone was leaving. Dang joined other survivors leaving the mall. She said she felt safe once she saw there were journalists around, because she figured reporters would not be allowed where terrorists were.
Dang still gets emotional when she sees images from the attack.
"It's less about me - and it's more about um, Kenya, and the fact that there is hatred, and these things are happening," she said. Dang also sees good in the awful events of that day. "When I see how civilians came in and helped each other, and the amazing the community that came out of this - I also get very emotional from joy, and from the fact that humanity could be so beautiful."
After some hospital time, Dang flew back home and the first thing she did with her family was visit a Vietnamese restaurant.
"They don't have those in Kenya," she joked, and added she's a fan of Mexican food, as well.
Life now in San Diego
Dang's parents came with her to 10News' studios for the interview. Her mom said they are grateful for every day with their daughter.
Her parents are one reason why she believes in efforts to help teaching in Kenya.
"My parents didn't have the opportunity to go to school … and this is my opportunity to give back," Dang said.
Every day, she said she takes an hour or two to send out thank you messages to people in San Diego and all over the world who have supported her and contributed to her foundation to help pay for her medical bills.
"I'm so fortunate to be in the condition I'm in," she said, despite shrapnel still under her skin, a recovering leg, nerve damage and also the psychological parts she's still working through.
Dang does not know how much her medical care will cost, but she said she will give anything donated over $20,000 to the group Promoting Access to Community Education, or PACE. (Links to more information are at the end of this story.)
She said she believes in its mission to improve Kenyan education, which currently has a student teacher ratio of 51 to 1.
Dang enjoys the coast at Torrey Pines and also great San Diego restaurants -- things she missed while she was overseas.
But Dang said she will be back in Kenya someday.
She has no regrets, and said she's not angry with the terrorists.
Dang said she goes to counseling and also uses yoga to help heal.
She described herself as agnostic, while her parents are Buddhists. She said she prays to her grandparents and to whatever higher force there is in the universe.
More than anything else, Dang said she is working out how she can use what happened. "How do I use this -- for something?"