IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Twenty five years later, Iranian hostages speak

Rocky Sickmann and William Gallegos recall their 444 days in captivity
/ Source:

Friday marked the 25th anniversary of the release of the last Americans held hostage in Iran.  The hostage situation tormented Americans for 444 days after Iranian militants raided the U.S. embassy in Tehran. 

Sixty-eight people were seized on November 4, 1979.  Some were released.  But 52 were held until January 20, 1981.  The former U.S. hostages gathered Thursday in Washington, D.C., to mark the anniversary of the end of their horrible ordeal. 

Two of these former 52 hostages, Rocky Sickmann and also William Gallegos, joined Rita Cosby on 'Live and Direct’ to recall their painful ordeals.  Former NYPD hostage negotiator Wally Zeins also join to discuss hostage situations.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

RITA COSBY, HOST’, 'LIVE AND DIRECT’:  Let me start with you, Rocky.  You know, it's been 25 years.  But do you still have nightmares?  II must just stay with you for the rest of your life, what you went through? 

ROCKY SICKMANN, FORMER HOSTAGE IN IRAN:  It really does, Rita, and probably not so much nightmares.  But there are things, just like as you were showing clips of fellow comrades that are being taken and have been taken—and you see those masked individuals with rifles—I remember it as it was like yesterday. 

If you've been through a trauma like a car accident, you never forget that car accident.  Being held hostage for 444 days, you don't forget the things that they put you through, the mock-firing squads, the Russian roulette, being tied to a chair for 30 days not allowed to speak, being locked in a room for 400 days.  Those are traumatic experiences that you just can't zap from your brain. 

COSBY:  I cannot even imagine.  It was frightening enough, and mine was just a mock exercise. 

You know, William, let's go back to that faithful day, November 4, 1979.  What went through your mind when the students raided the embassy?  Did you have any idea that you and those others would be taken hostage? 

WILLIAM GALLEGOS, FORMER HOSTAGE IN IRAN:  No, I didn't at that time.  I thought we'd be able to fight them off.  It didn't seem to work out that way. 

COSBY:  You know, when you look back, is there something different you could have done?  I know you were given orders, “Don't shoot.”  Do you think it would have been worse, had you shot? 

GALLEGOS:  I think it would have been worse had we shot that day.  I think, if we had done that and the marines started shooting the people that are coming over the fences or in through the doors, we possibly would have all been killed at that time. 

COSBY:  You know, Rocky, at one point, they take you and the others into a room, and they stripped you.  Tell us, what did they say, what did they do at that point? 

SICKMANN:  Yes, at the very beginning, Rita, you know, everybody was interrogated.  And they put us into rooms and brought political prisoners in, because what they wanted from us is to have us state derogatory statements against our government for what they wanted was the Shah to return and how bad our government was. 

So they brought political prisoners in.  They, you know, told us what the Shahs had supposedly done to them.  And then, weeks later, after they had shown us one specific film, where it was shot from the rooftop, individuals in the courtyard, stripped nude, told to turn, and they were shot in the back of the head. 

Well, February 1980, we were in our room.  And we had made Uno cards out of paper.  And we're sitting there playing Uno at 2:00 in the morning, because you have to create your own living condition within that room.

And all of a sudden, at 2:00 in the morning, the door burst open.  In the room come two individuals masked with rifles drawn.  And they pull us out of the room and against the wall, down the basement in the embassy, where other fellow hostages. 

Right away, you're thinking the United States government's coming to rescue us.  They know about it, and they're getting ready to shoot us, because they told us, “If anybody comes to try to rescue you, as the hostages, we will shoot you.” 

And all of a sudden, as you sit there against the wall, hands against the wall, I mean, my body was releasing fluids everywhere.  I mean, you're scared.  I mean, anybody that tells you that they weren't scared, I'd have to question what the heck was going on in their mind. 

But you're sitting there thinking of your past.  I mean, your mind plays all kinds of games when you're taken from, you know, your life.  And all of a sudden, they grab me and threw me into a room.  And three individuals come in.  And they locked and loaded and said, “Undress.” 

And right away, your mind goes back to those movies that they had shown you about these political prisoners.  And all of a sudden, here I am, buck naked, and they said, “Turn around.”  And after they told me to turn around, I thought there's the movie, three bullets to the back of the head.  And then it never obviously happened. 

But again, when you're held hostage in a foreign country and you have no control, you have no idea what's going on, it was a very traumatic situation that you just don't ever forget. 

COSBY:  And, in fact, we're looking at video of the two of you, of Rocky and William back then.  This is amazing pictures. 

And you know, William, you were the only hostage that was allowed to do a television interview with NBC.  I want to play a little clip of that and then I'm going to ask you a question.  But let's—this is William back then, allowed to do and encouraged by the hostage-takers. 

GALLEGOS:  Nobody's been mistreated.  All of us can see each other.  Everybody's OK.  You know, we're getting enough food to eat.  The cleanliness is really great, you know?  They come and clean up and clean clothes, everything we need, everything, toothbrushes, combs. 

COSBY:  You know, William, how did that come about?  Did they force you to say the things?  What kind of preparation went into that? 

GALLEGOS:  Actually, it was in a situation where we didn't want someone else to make a statement at that time.  And they told us exactly what they wanted us to say.  And at that time, I had gotten a message through to my superiors as to where we were and what was happening. 

COSBY:  What goes through your mind, real quick, when you see that tape, William? 

GALLEGOS:  I remember that vividly.

COSBY:  Wally, why is it so hard to rescue hostages, particularly overseas, in situations like Iran or now in Iraq? 

WALLY ZEINS, FORMER NYPD HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR:  Well, first of all, there are two very important factors, intelligence and communications.  You must have that before you can do anything.  And also we're dealing in a foreign country.  We have to know the nomenclature, the demographics, the topography of the land.  And that's hard.  And there's also that language barrier. 

COSBY:  And it's intricate, too.  You know, when you talk about you don't know the lay of the land, you don't know what you're dealing with, Wally. I mean, there's so many factors, especially, you know, when you talk about what happened in Iran in '79, right? 

ZEINS:  Absolutely. 

COSBY:  Rocky, you were there in '79.  It's astounding.  You kept that journal, and you were able to sneak it out.  It's incredible.  I read the story that you taped it on your leg.

On April 26, 1980, Rocky, you wrote in your journal—and I think this quote is so powerful—“They blindfolded us and they took us down back of the embassy.  We rode in the van for nine hours, blindfolded, handcuffed, and not being able to talk to anyone.”  And then they moved you around quite a bit after they aborted the raid. 

How terrified were you when they loaded you in that van the first time, Rocky? 

SICKMANN:  I have a very vivid memory of that, Rita.  That evening, you could tell something was happening at the American embassy that day.  You could hear things.  You could never see them, but you could hear people running around.  Cars were driving up and down. 

And all of a sudden, about 10:00, I think it was, that night, they came into the room and said, “You must go to the restroom.”  Well, Rita, you couldn't leave the room unless you knocked on the door and put a piece of paper underneath the door.  And then they blindfolded you and took you to the restroom. 

Well, you know, they all of a sudden blindfolded us, took us to the restroom, came back, and all of our things were, like, in bags.  And they said, “Gather your stuff.  We must leave.” 

And all of a sudden, they blindfolded us, handcuffed us, and then took us down the back of the embassy, put us in the back of the vehicle.  Jerry was handcuffed, I believe, to my right.  I was handcuffed to him.  Billy was to my left, handcuffed to him.  Billy was handcuffed to the suburban.

They took a picture of us.  And all of a sudden, they threw a blanket over top of us.  And, again, here you are.  It's like April.  I've been there for sometime.  And you're sitting there thinking, “You know what?  This isn't good.” 

And sure enough, they drove us that night.  We had no idea what had happened.  Drove us to another destination.  And, I mean, Rita, if you had to go to the bathroom that night, there was no stopping at the pit stop, you know, and be able to go up and go to the clean bathroom.  You had to go on yourself. 

I mean, that's the disgrace that, for 444 days, this country that did this to us, it's like someone had raped me of 444 days of freedom and they've never been accountable.  It was a difficult time.  We remained at the spot that they took us to the next morning.  They then kept us in this safe house. 

We want outside that afternoon.  They put us back into the vehicle that night, and they drove us south of this location, supposedly to Shiraz. 

COSBY:  Incredible.  You know, Rocky, it is incredible when I hear the stories of what you and William went through. 

Watch 'Rita Cosby Live & Direct' each night at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.