Michael Spencer doesn't consider himself a hero.
But it is easy to look at the 26-year-old Gallatin Valley native and Montana State architecture graduate that way after he found himself helping lead the on-site medical response to Kenya’s worst terror attack in more than a decade.
Spencer was in Nairobi on Saturday, Sept. 21, when a small group of armed gunmen associated with the Somalia-based al-Shabaab group stormed the city’s upscale Westgate Mall, a popular destination for upper class Kenyans and foreign tourists. Over the next three days, at least 67 people died as the militants, barricaded in a supermarket, held off the Kenyan military’s efforts to root them out.
At a friend’s house nearby as the attack unfolded, Spencer saw a Facebook post warning foreigners to avoid the mall. Setting down the business school application he was working on, he pulled up Twitter — the most consistent source of breaking news throughout the tragedy — and turned on a television.
A trained emergency responder with years of experience on the Gallatin Valley Search and Rescue team, Spencer weighed his options as updates streamed in. "I'm 10 minutes away," he thought. "I have a skill set that might prove valuable if they're overwhelmed."
He waited until early evening, hoping the situation would find a quick resolution, then picked up his phone. He got in touch with someone on the scene, who told him they could use all the help they could get. He called a cab, grabbed his medical kit and set out into the night.
Thriving on challenge
A ranch kid from Willow Creek, 40 miles west of Bozeman, Spencer’s childhood ranged from tending cattle to traveling with his father on international business trips.
He first became involved with emergency medical response in his time as an architecture student at MSU, when he took a wilderness first responder course over spring break his freshman year and “loved it.” He went on to earn his EMT certification as a sophomore and teach first responder and EMT courses through Remote Medical International.
Beyond the adrenaline rush, he loves the physical and mental difficulty of emergency response, he said, the opportunity to test his skills while helping someone in need.
The combination of high-energy situations and problem solving amidst confusion is satisfying, he added. "It's a challenge that I can overcome."
He first spent time in Kenya through the MSU School of Architecture, working with a professor, a fellow student and a Kenyan architect to develop a studio course examining affordable housing issues in Nairobi’s Kibera slum.
After graduating in 2010, Spencer found himself drawn back to East Africa. “I just had an idea,” he said — taking straw bale construction technology used by the Bozeman-based nonprofit Red Feather to construct low-cost homes in American Indian communities and adapting it to the needs of Kenyan farmers. "I was curious to see if it would work.”
In a departure from more traditional approaches to international development, which rely on money raised from donors in wealthy countries to construct much-needed infrastructure like schools or wells, Spencer chose to structure his project as a for-profit social enterprise.
His goal wasn’t necessarily to make as much money as he could, he said, just enough to interest local entrepreneurs in copying his approach. If he could demonstrate that straw-bale buildings represented a better, more profitable method than traditional construction practices, his idea could spread further than with a project reliant on charity.
"I'm trying to lay the groundwork for something that's going to grow,” he said. "It's not a donor model — it's a self-sustaining business model.”
Spencer, who recently sold his company to a local engineer, shrugs off the suggestion that his business development work is heroic, citing the personal gain involved.
“I’m a greedy businessman,” he said. “I saw a business opportunity."
Going forward, he said he hopes to explore business opportunities around medical response, possibly starting a helicopter ambulance service in East Africa.
"There's a massive need for improved emergency medical services here," he said.
A ‘heroic moment’
At a hastily converted community center across from the mall that Saturday evening in Nairobi, Spencer found himself joining a ragtag crowd of on-duty medics, but mostly "off-the-clock" professionals — doctors, medical students and dentists. Kenyans from multiple ethnic groups were represented, along with Canadians, South Africans and Americans.
As many as 60 to 70 people were thought to be trapped inside the mall, wounded or taking shelter from the attackers. Waiting outside, the responders worried that victims would flood out once security forces took control of the situation, swamping their improvised preparations.
At first, Spencer had a hard time telling who was in charge as volunteers scrambled to set up a triage system able to direct care to where it would do the most good. By Sunday morning, he said, he found himself "calling shots."
“Initially, it was somewhat nerve-wracking,” Spencer said. "You prepare for something to happen and you have no idea when it's going to happen…. You’re on call the whole time."
Eventually, responders began to talk and tell jokes as they waited, he said, but still "with a pair of gloves in your pocket and a stethoscope around your neck."
In the end, responders’ efforts proved adequate to manage the flow of victims. Apart from a dozen wounded soldiers and escaping civilians needing treatment after a firefight Sunday morning, victims — most of whom had managed to hide from the attackers — trickled out in small groups.
By Tuesday morning, Spencer felt like things were calm enough to step back. He had spent almost 50 hours outside Westgate, leaving only for a brief nap Monday night.
He was glad to have the opportunity to help. For each person inside taking lives, he said, you had dozens outside trying to help.
"It's a beautiful illustration of the human spirit… (an) equal amount of energy to respond and to act and to care,” he said. "Collectively, it was a heroic moment."
Spencer downplays his personal contribution to the response, equating it to a task like unwrapping bandages. "It was just another role that somebody needs to fill,” he said. “It could have been anybody."
He contrasted his role to that of Abdul Haji, an ethnic Somali Muslim and the son of a former Kenyan defense minister. Haji, whose brother was trapped inside the mall, entered the building with a handgun and exchanged fire with militants to help rescue several bystanders, including an American woman and her three young children.
"I just showed up and tried to keep things slightly more organized than they would have been otherwise,” Spencer said. "You're not there to save the day, you're there to help other people more effectively save the day."