More details on Argo rescue revealed in diary

By Kathryn Powley

Secret diary reveals truth about hit movie.

Richard Sewell's hostage account turns the plot of the movie Argo on its head. Photo / Chris Loufte
Richard Sewell's hostage account turns the plot of the movie Argo on its head. Photo / Chris Loufte

A New Zealander's dramatic account of a daring secret mission to rescue American hostages has emerged after being left out of the Hollywood hit film Argo.

Richard Sewell, who was second secretary at the NZ Embassy in Iran, wrote his version of events in Tehran in 1979 in a yellow notepad that was discovered recently.

Sewell, 38, died of lymphoma in 1989. His partner, Grant Allen, the Herald on Sunday's food writer, inherited the yellow notebook and only realised its importance recently.

It turns on its head Argo's account of how the CIA used a fake movie script as a cover to spirit six United States hostages out of Iraq after militants took over the US embassy. Ben Affleck's film does not mention NZ ambassador Chris Beeby or Sewell, who helped save the hostages. Instead, it says New Zealand refused to help.

The account of the rescue, which Allen will donate to the Alexander Turnbull Library next week, makes gripping reading. The story begins after an "emotional" farewell dinner to the hostages; Sewell had set his alarm for 2am. "Now came the hard part," he wrote. "The escape. Would we make it? Were we all making a big mistake?"

But hostage Lee Schatz had boosted morale, and "Kevin" helped instil confidence. Presumably this was Kevin Harkins, the alias of CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Affleck in Argo.

Sewell collected Kevin from the Sheraton Hotel. "The night was silent - none of the small-arms fire or night-time chanting we had got used to during the revolution. Now there were other problems ... Komitehs [revolutionary committees], road blocks, trigger-happy revolutionaries firing off their weapons."

He considered phoning Beeby but then decided against it. "It occurred to me that at least he should be allowed to nurse his hangover. Today would be a long day."

At the hotel, Kevin took a long time answering his phone and said: "Jesus, is it time to go already? I'm still asleep. I've only just got back."

When he emerged they were almost 30 minutes late. "For God sakes don't mention this to anyone. We laughed and laughed as we both thought out loud about the folk back in Washington, at Langley, in Ottawa who no doubt were already biting their nails, counting the minutes, following our progress by remote control, worrying and waiting for Argo to run its course."

They reached the airport for stage one of the plan. "I asked Kevin whether he had ever pondered what would happen if all this went wrong. 'I suppose we'll all be down at the Embassy with the rest,' he replied. 'Maybe I'll even be shot."'

Allen said he only got to know Sewell much later, in Wellington. They were together about 18 months.

He said Beeby spoke at Sewell's funeral. He said: "There's stuff we can't talk about at this point in time but it will come to light that Richard played a heroic role."'

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