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A Day of Terror Recalled

1979 Embassy Siege In Islamabad Still Haunts Survivors

By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2004; Page A20

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.


A Pakistani army helicopter hovers over the burning U.S. Embassy in Islamabad during the attack by anti-American demonstrators in 1979. (AP)

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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.


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