It would be hard to say which came first, the unrelenting press attention or the public obsession. The story of fifty-some Americans being held hostage inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran provoked indignation but also piqued America's imagination. Scott Miller, a deejay at WOBL, in Oberlin, Ohio, had himself locked in a recording studio with only a sleeping bag. He spent part of every day tied to a chair, telling listeners he wanted to share the experience of the hostages. At the outset no one imagined that the Iran hostage crisis, which began on November 4, 1979, would go on for fully 444 days.
In Lawrence, Massachusetts, all the churches around city hall sounded their bells fifty times daily at noon to remember the American captives. In Columbus, Ohio, protesters marched to express their anger, chanting, "Nagasaki, Hiroshima, why not Iran!" In Manhattan 10,000 cabdrivers drove with their lights on to express solidarity with their captive countrymen.
Fall turned into winter. As Christmas approached, Tehran grew wet and cold. And the hostages waited.
By the third week of the takeover it was clear to the Students Following the Imam's Line—the group responsible for the hostage-taking—that the planned one-or-two-day occupation of the American embassy had become a prolonged siege. The students divided themselves into committees to handle the logistics of feeding, housing, and guarding their fifty-three captives—the number remaining after the imam, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered the release of most of the women and African-Americans. Some of the fifty-three were kept in the basement of the chancery, the main office building, and in other spots around the compound, but the largest number were confined in the large, damp, windowless open basement of the embassy warehouse, a place the hostages dubbed the Mushroom Inn, because it seemed ideal for growing fungi. The space was divided into thirty or more cubicles defined by empty bookshelves. Each enclosure had a mattress, and some had a chair or a table. By December the stale air was cold and clammy, the toilets reeked, and life had settled into a dull routine.