November 4, 1979,began like any other day at the US embassy in Tehran. The staff filtered in under gray skies, the marines manned their posts, and the daily crush of anti-American protestors massed outside the gate chanting, “Allahu akbar! Marg bar Amrika!”
Mark and Cora Lijek, a young couple serving in their first foreign service post, knew the slogans “God is great! Death to America!” and had learned to ignore the din as they went about their duties. But today, the protest sounded louder than usual. And when some of the local employees came in and said there was “a problem at the gate,” they knew this morning would be different. Militant students were soon scaling the walls of the embassy complex. Someone forced open the front gate, and the trickle of invaders became a flood. The mob quickly fanned across the 27-acre compound, waving posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. They took the ambassador’s residence, then set upon the chancery, the citadel of the embassy where most of the staff was stationed.
At first, the Lijeks hoped the consulate building where they worked would escape notice. Because of recent renovations, the ground floor was mostly empty. Perhaps no one would suspect that 12 Americans and a few dozen Iranian employees and visa applicants were upstairs. The group included consular officer Joseph Stafford, his assistant and wife, Kathleen, and Robert Anders, a senior officer in the visa department.
They tried to keep calm, and even to continue working. But then the power went out and panic spread throughout the building. The Iranian employees, who knew the revolutionary forces’ predilection for firing squads, braced for the worst. “There’s someone on the roof,” one Iranian worker said, trembling. Another smelled smoke. People began to weep in the dark, convinced the militants would try to burn down the building. Outside, the roar of the victorious mob grew louder. There were occasional gunshots. It was time to flee.
The Americans destroyed the plates used to make visa stamps, organized an evacuation plan, and ushered everyone to the back door. “We’ll leave in groups of five or six,” the marine sergeant on duty said. “Locals first. Then the married couples. Then the rest.” The consulate building was the only structure in the compound with an exit on the street. The goal was to make it to the British embassy about six blocks away.