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 A Day of Terror Recalled

1979 Embassy Siege In Islamabad Still Haunts Survivors

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Posts:U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan Author: 
By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2004; Page A20
Source:  Washington Post

Marine Master Sgt. Loyd G. Miller stood in the lobby of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, and deployed his troops. Outside the locked gate of the 32-acre embassy compound, bus after bus after bus disgorged crowds of student protesters.

"Kill the American dogs," some shouted.

Miller had five Marines under his command; he sent two to the embassy's roof to assess the demonstration. He watched with growing anxiety as protesters pulled down part of the compound's outer wall and surged inside.

He heard gunshots. He knew the members of his Marine security guard detachment were not authorized to fire. He ran to the roof to see what was happening.

Cpl. Steven J. Crowley was slumped over, bleeding from a bullet wound above his left ear. Miller helped carry the unconscious Marine into the building. Staff members headed for the embassy's steel-encased communications rooms, a secure area known as "the vault."

It was a little after lunchtime on Nov. 21, 1979. In a day of orchestrated anti-American outrage, Pakistanis were attacking several U.S. facilities across the country.

Twenty-five years later, this outburst seems a thin slice of history, sandwiched between the taking of U.S. hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Officially, Nov. 21 was quickly forgotten, seen by the United States as an aberration in its complex but generally productive relationship with Pakistan.

For many of the people who endured the embassy attack and its aftermath, these events linger, called to mind each year as Thanksgiving approaches. "I came away from that with a really deep understanding of the hostility that other nations hold toward America," said Beth Rideout, who as a high school senior was Crowley's girlfriend.

Some survivors have resolved to help make the United States stronger. Others wish that Americans were wiser about the rest of the world. In the years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that wish has sometimes turned to despair.

"My own frustration -- great frustration -- with America is that it continues to be so inward looking, so negligent of the world," said Raymond L. Rideout, Beth's father. In 1979, he was acting principal of the International School of Islamabad, which was also attacked by anti-American demonstrators. "Americans seem not to have a clue about how the world thinks."

Retreating to the Vault

By 1:40 p.m., nearly 140 people -- U.S. diplomats, Pakistani staff members, a visiting Time magazine correspondent -- had assembled in the vault, a suite of rooms on the top floor of the three-story embassy building. Marines had covered their retreat upstairs by tossing tear gas canisters as protesters broke their way into the embassy, shattering windows and setting fires in offices.

As CIA officers began to destroy secret files and equipment, diplomats maintained contact with officials outside the embassy, including Ambassador Arthur W. Hummel Jr., who had left the building for lunch. He began demanding help from Pakistan's government. A nurse worked to halt Crowley's bleeding until he could be hospitalized.

Smoke started seeping into the vault. The people inside sat quietly, most of them on the floor, crowded into a space intended to hold far fewer occupants. The temperature rose, and the air, tainted by tear gas and smoke, grew hard to breathe. They took off extra clothing and passed around wet paper towels to use as filters.

Time's Marcia Gauger, who had stopped by the embassy that day to have lunch with political counselor Herbert G. Hagerty, scribbled in a notebook, wondering how she might ensure that her record of events would survive, even if she did not. As the afternoon wore on, she would become convinced that she would die.

Noises overhead indicated that protesters were on the roof of the building. Some fired bullets down ventilation shafts. The rioters began beating on a metal hatch connecting the vault to the roof. Miller had men with guns stand guard under the hatch, prepared to kill anyone who broke through.

Sitting in his home in Northwest Washington, 25 years after enduring this experience, Hagerty says it is tempting to draw a line between Nov. 21 and the current conflict between militant Islam and the United States. "But jihadism -- that wasn't the issue," he added. "The Pakistanis were [mad] at us for reasons of their own." These included the Carter administration's decision to cut off aid over concerns about Pakistan's nuclear ambitions and U.S. criticism of the human rights record of its dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

In trying to explain Nov. 21, U.S. officials have cited those issues and the atmosphere of the day. Earlier that year, Shiite clerics in Iran had overthrown a U.S.-backed dictator. On Nov. 4, Iranian revolutionaries had seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taken dozens of Americans hostage.

On Nov. 20, a Saudi Arabian religious zealot had led a takeover of the Grand Mosque at Mecca. Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini immediately suggested that Americans were behind the attack on Islam's holiest place, a falsehood repeated in media reports the morning of Nov. 21.

But some experts are now seeing a closer link between the motivations of the Pakistani students and the thinking of militant Muslims determined to wage war against the United States. Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll writes in his 2004 book, "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001," that the uprising was primarily led by the student wing of an Islamist group, Jamaat-e-Islami, that was rising in prominence and influence. When Osama bin Laden first traveled to Pakistan in 1980 or 1981, he visited Jamaat and donated money to the group, Coll writes.

'I Felt His Spirit'

About five miles away, on the other side of Islamabad, administrators at the International School knew the embassy was under siege and wondered what to do with the American children in their charge. Some students had two parents inside a burning building whose smoke was visible on the horizon.

Acting principal Rideout and other administrators canceled afternoon buses and called parents to pick up their children. By midafternoon, mainly Americans were left. Beth Rideout, the 17-year-old president of the student body, took refuge in the school's music room. A pretty girl with high cheekbones who often tied her hair back, she sat under the piano and comforted an elementary school student.

A few months earlier, she had begun dating Crowley, 20, of Long Island. He was blond and, at 6 feet 6 inches, a foot taller than she was. She found him chivalrous and cordial. He seemed a little embarrassed when she asked him to kiss her.

A young boy whom Crowley had befriended had told Rideout a secret: Crowley had asked his mother to send him his high school class ring. The Rideouts had invited him over for Thanksgiving, which was the next day. Beth wondered whether he would ask her to wear his ring.

Under the piano, she suddenly felt him near her. "I felt his spirit visit me," she recalls now.

About this time, inside the vault, public affairs officer James P. Thurber took Gauger's notebook out of her hands. He wrote something down and handed it back. When she read it, tears welled in her eyes: "3:35 Marine died." Thurber told her that very few people in the vault knew. He and other senior diplomats did not want morale to slide any lower.

About 4 p.m., the occupants of the vault heard a helicopter overhead, raising hopes that the Pakistani government would mount a rescue. Then it flew away.

An hour later, a group of protesters briefly rampaged through the International School, shattering windows. The Americans hid, some in darkened bathrooms, while Pakistani staff members and others fought off the attackers.

As evening approached, the vault's floor tiles began to buckle from the heat. A patch of carpeting smoldered. Many people were coughing as they struggled to breathe; some vomited. Hagerty and others began to hope that nightfall would quell the riot and allow an escape. It seemed their only way out.

Some who endured the attacks on the embassy and the school later concluded that the lack of a U.S. reaction made the United States look weak. Adam Rice, who as a ninth-grader broke his wrist fleeing protesters at the school, says the lesson of Iran and Pakistan was that those hostile to Americans "can stick them in the eye, and they don't do anything back."

He joined the Army after high school and served in Afghanistan in 2002 as a Special Forces reservist, contributing to a strengthened U.S. posture in the face of attack.

Adults also emerged from Nov. 21 with a new outlook. David C. Fields, who as the embassy's administrative counselor took charge of the staff members in the besieged embassy, has concentrated on security and terrorism ever since. "I often tell people that terrorism is not new; it didn't begin with 9/11. It's been around a long time."

Beginning of the End

By 6:30, the roof had gone quiet. Fields decided they had to get out. The hatch was too damaged to open from the inside. The only alternative was to send men out the door of the vault into the third-floor hallway to reach the roof by another route.

Miller led a handful of Marines and staff members holding shotguns and pistols. The hallway was blackened by smoke and devoid of light. Gas masks afforded them some protection from tear gas but not from the fumes produced by the burning building.

As they stepped out of the vault, felt their way along the hallway and climbed onto the roof, they did not know who might be waiting. They were authorized to shoot. "It was pretty harrowing," Miller says now. It was also the beginning of the end of their ordeal. The demonstrators had all but left the building, although some remained around the compound.

The flames of the burning embassy rose up from the sides of the roof, lighting the night, as Marines and others walked the survivors of the vault to a place where they could descend by ladder to the ground. They breathed deeply in the cool air.

After everyone was out, Miller climbed the ladder and went back into the vault. A few minutes later he reappeared, holding Crowley's body in a fireman's carry across his shoulders. The blood of the dead Marine stained Miller's shirt.

Thanksgiving was somber. A search revealed the burned corpse of Army Warrant Officer Bryan Ellis, 30, who died at his apartment in the compound. Two Pakistani staff members, dead of asphyxiation, were found in the embassy. News reports indicated that two protesters were killed during the previous day's chaos.

Embassy officials made plans to evacuate nonessential personnel, family members and other Americans who wished to leave the country.

At an Air Force boot camp in Texas, it took a young airman named David Miller a couple of days to confirm that the dead did not include his father, Loyd. David Miller, a 1979 graduate of the International School who now lives in Fredericksburg and is a fire-protection consultant, remains influenced by the years he spent in Pakistan.

"I have a lot more sympathy for Muslim people because I lived there," he says. The unrest of Nov. 21, which he experienced at a distance, has helped to cement a bond between him and the people he knew in Islamabad.

"Here in the Washington area, it's a bit different -- there are a lot of us," he says. Miller maintains friendships, attends reunions and participates in a Web forum for alumni of the International School. "It's natural to seek each other out. A lot of people don't understand what we've gone through." They are also less interested in international affairs, in spite of the events of the past few years, he says.

"Most Americans are unequipped to make an opinion" about what happens in the rest of world, Miller adds. "They don't have any information, and they don't have any inclination to get any information. They just don't care. . . . If I care, I call up some people I went to high school with."

The Return Home

On Nov. 23, Beth Rideout flew out of Pakistan on a jumbo jet with about 400 other Americans, many never to return. She was in shock. She could feel others looking at her, the girlfriend of the dead Marine. She kept thinking how weird it was that Steve was flying home with them, except that he was in the hold of the aircraft.

He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. President Jimmy Carter sat next to his mother, Georgine, at the funeral. In an earlier phone call, he told her that Crowley died a hero. White House officials initially credited the Pakistani government with rescuing those in the vault, but Marcia Gauger disputed that assertion. "It was our Marine guards who saved us," she wrote in Time. "Nobody else."

Loyd Miller, now 63, retired from the Marine Corps as a master gunnery sergeant in 1984. He received a medal honoring "exceptionally meritorious conduct" for his defense of the embassy; his detachment was also commended. Today he cares for his wife, a cancer patient, at their home in Fredericksburg.

Rideout, a divorced mother of twins, lives in Traverse City, Mich., and is working toward a degree in social work. She is 42. From time to time, she has wondered what happened to Crowley's class ring.

Georgine Crowley hadn't sent it to Pakistan by the time Steve was killed. She gave it to one of her seven surviving children.

What was not to be, might never have been. Would Rideout have worn Crowley's ring? "I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have," she says.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.


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