09/25/2013 02:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bendita Malakia, American Who Survived Kenya Mall Attack, Recounts 5 Hours Of Terror (VIDEO)

Switching lunch tables may have saved Bendita Malakia's life.

An American lawyer working for the World Bank in Kenya, Malakia was eating lunch in Nairobi's Westgate mall Saturday afternoon when heavily armed militants stormed the shopping center, engulfing patrons in a hail of gunfire. In an interview with NBC News, Malakia describes how she managed to survive the attack and how she escaped after spending five hours huddled in a shop's back room.

Malakia told NBC that the lunch started off typically enough. She met a colleague, and the pair decided to move from one table to a different table. Then the assault began.

"We're chatting, and then all of a sudden there's this explosion," Malakia told NBC News after returning to the U.S. on Tuesday. "The gentleman who had taken my [old] seat must have gotten shot immediately because he was basically on the floor, on the ground, like dead right next to the chair that I was sitting in."

As the attack continued, Malakia said she sought refuge in the employee break room of a home goods store in the mall, according to NBC. As she and around a dozen others hid, they could hear gunfire and screaming coming from the floor above them. Amid the chaos, she used someone else's phone to send a text message to her dad.

"It was terrifying, we all had a very real sense that we were going to die," Malakia said.

A native of North Carolina, Malakia told local station WRAL that she was so close to the action, she could hear the gunmen from Somali-based terror group Al-Shabab talking to their victims.

"You could hear them methodically kind of going from store to store talking to people, asking questions, shooting (and then hearing screams)," Malakia told WRAL via Skype. "Then, it would stop for a while, and then they would go to another store."

Watching the news back home was torture for Malakia's mother and father, according to WRAL.

"I couldn't get to her," mother Lue Malakia told the station. "I couldn't make the wrongs right."

At least 67 people died in the attack that began on Saturday, but the number may rise as Kenyan officials sort through the rubble of the mall, according to The Associated Press. The victims hailed from countries around the world, including England, France, Australia and Canada, notes the AP.

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Attack At Mall In Nairobi