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Richard Morefield dies at 81; diplomat was seized in Iran hostage crisis

Held for 444 days, the U.S. consul general in Tehran was given a hero's welcome after the hostages were freed and he returned home to San Diego.

October 15, 2010|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • A 1981 photo of Richard Morefield and his wife, Dorothea, after he returned home from captivity in Iran. He was one of the American hostages held by Iranian militants for 444 days during the Carter administration.
A 1981 photo of Richard Morefield and his wife, Dorothea, after he returned… (Los Angeles Tmes )

Richard Morefield, a former career diplomat who was the U.S. consul general in Tehran in 1979 when the American Embassy was seized by Iranian militants and he and 51 other Americans were held hostage for 444 days, has died. He was 81.

Morefield, a resident of Cary, N.C., died Monday of respiratory failure caused by pneumonia at a hospital in nearby Raleigh, said his wife, Dorothea.

In a career as a Foreign Service officer that began in 1956, Morefield had been consul general in Tehran for four months when militants seized the U.S. Embassy in November 1979 and demanded that the United States turn over the deposed Shah of Iran for trial by a revolutionary court.

When the militants stormed the embassy, Morefield said in a 1981 interview with Newsweek magazine, he loaded five American staff members into a car and sent them to the safety of the Canadian Embassy.

But when Morefield, Vice Consul Donald Cooke and a few others headed down a side street on foot, they encountered a group of club-waving militants.

"Excuse me," Morefield told them, "the building is yours. We've left."

Then one of the militants shocked Morefield by saying: "You're a hostage."

So began the 14 1/2 month Iranian hostage crisis, during which an American military operation to rescue the hostages was aborted after equipment failed and eight crewmen died when two U.S. aircraft collided on the ground at a remote desert location in Iran.

Morefield and others were taken to a windowless basement room in the embassy, which the militants had partitioned into 12 cubicles, each containing a mattress, a chair and a small table.

The second night, he was removed from the compound, Morefield recalled in a news conference for "Hostage in Iran," a 1986 episode of PBS' " Frontline" documentary series in which he participated.

"I was put in the basement washroom where I was blindfolded with my hands behind my back and went through a mock execution," he said. "The gun was fired on an empty chamber."

It was the first of three mock executions he would face.

But Morefield found strength in having previously endured a family tragedy.

In 1976, his 19-year-old son Rick was one of five employees of a Virginia restaurant who were ordered into a walk-in refrigerator by an armed robber. They were made to lie face down and then were shot a number of times. Four died, including Morefield's son, and one who was seriously wounded was able to identify the killer.

Dealing with the loss of his son, Morefield said during the news conference, "forced me to make the decision that I was going to cope. There was nothing more they could do emotionally to me."

In San Diego, meanwhile, Morefield's wife became a nationally known spokeswoman for the hostage families.

"It was a very, very difficult time, because we really didn't know from day to day if he would be killed," Dorothea Morefield recalled this week. "Especially when we had the rescue attempt and those men died. We didn't know what the reaction was going to be, so it was scary."

At the time, the two youngest of their five surviving children were still living at home. But like her husband, she said that having coped with the death of Rick, "I always knew whatever happens that I could hold my family together."

Still, she said, "it was days and days and months of fear."

In January 1981, Morefield and the other hostages were finally released and returned home.

Morefield's wife and children were at the airport not far from West Point, N.Y., to greet him when the plane carrying the former hostages landed.

When Morefield, some 40 pounds lighter from the ordeal, stepped off the plane, his children rushed to greet him. But Dorothea Morefield froze.

"I stood there for a minute and said, 'Thank God, it's over,'" she recalled.

The Morefields attended a large White House reception for the former hostages with President Reagan, whose first inauguration was on the day the hostages were freed, but decided to forgo a ticker-tape parade in New York City. "We wanted to get home," Dorothea Morefield said.

In San Diego, Morefield was greeted at the airport by local officials and given a key to the city. And thousands lined the streets to wave yellow ribbons and yellow balloons as Morefield and his wife, in an open-roofed limousine, made their way home.

Morefield was approached to consider a run for Congress. He thought about it for a week, his wife said, "then he said it's not what he wanted. He wanted to get back to Washington and back to work."

Morefield was appointed director of the State Department's Office of Caribbean Affairs. He then became U.S. consul general in Guadalajara, Mexico. His last foreign post was as the economic counselor in the American Embassy in Mexico City.

Morefield was born Sept. 9, 1929, in Venice and grew up in San Diego. He received a bachelor's degree in history from the University of San Francisco in 1951 and, after two years in the Army as a first lieutenant, he received a master's degree in history from UC Berkeley.

After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1989, Morefield continued to work part-time as a foreign officer and traveled extensively with his wife.

Dorothea Morefield said she and her husband had often been asked how his time as a hostage affected him.

"He sat and looked at death for 444 days," she said. "Of course, you're going to think and reflect on your life and what's important in your life. I'd say it brought out in him the better characteristics. I think he was more open, he was more able to express himself."

And, she said, "there was a realization and appreciation of what we had and the life we led. We're really two kids from San Diego. We had a wonderful life."

In addition to his wife of 55 years, Morefield is survived by his children Betsy, Dan, Bill, Steven and Kenneth.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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