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'Argo' film revives memories of Carolina workers who escaped Iran crisis

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By The Charlotte Observer
Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 10:03 p.m.

CHARLOTTE — The clues could not be ignored: cars overturned and burned, chanting students, troops with bayonets drawn on every corner. In late summer 1978 the government of the shah of Iran,was unraveling.

Caught up in the crisis, dozens of employees of Charlotte-based J.A. Jones Construction lived and worked at a remote job site in the Iranian desert. Their mission: building a helicopter factory for the shah's military.

Shut off from the rest of a country on the brink of revolution, they did not know they were in danger. In Charlotte, their bosses at J.A. Jones did — and knew that they had to get their people out fast.

Nearly 35 years later, the Ben Affleck thriller “Argo” has revived the drama of Americans trapped inside revolutionary Iran.

The evacuation of 102 Carolinians from Iran on Jan. 3, 1979, may not have unfolded with the same drama as the “Argo” rescue of six Americans from Tehran. There was no CIA-led Hollywood ruse to extract the Jones employees, their families and 170 others.

But “Operation Safe Haven” included code names, clandestine phone calls from Iran to North Carolina, emergency escape plans and ultimately a daring and secret flight out of Iran — as passengers watched nervously for signs of fighter jets that might shoot them down.

“You had the shah's government getting ready to be overthrown,” said Jim Walker, then-company project manager in Iran who lives in Asheville, N.C. “You had the cars burning and troops and students in the streets. So it was a scary thing to put 270 people on a DC-10 and fly them out of Iran — with so much uncertainty.”

When the Bell Helicopter International project broke ground in June 1977, many employees brought their families to the desert job site, 16 miles from the ancient city of Isfahar.

Walker brought his wife, Carolyn, and their 4-year-old son, Vincent. George Marett, the project's managing director, arrived with his wife, Betty, and their dog, Suzy. Bobby and Barbara Bunn were married Dec. 10, 1977, and left three weeks later for Iran, where Bobby was the business manager.

“I was 25 and a newlywed and suddenly in Iran — it was a whole new world,” said Barbara Bunn, who worked in the office as data control supervisor.

Life revolved largely around the helicopter project. Supervisors and engineers worked 10-hour days, six days a week. But they explored the region, visiting Isfahar and its vast bazaar. Little known to the Americans, trouble began soon after they arrived.

On the day Bobby and Barbara Bunn left Charlotte, New Year's Eve 1977, President Carter was in Tehran toasting the shah, calling the U.S.-backed monarchy “an island of stability” in the Middle East. That set off months of daily protests against the shah's brutal regime.

In August 1978, the shah declared martial law to quell the protests.

“We couldn't be out past 8 p.m.,” Bobby Bunn said. “I'm not sure we realized the gravity of it all. We all felt safe inside the camp. But we knew the situation was deteriorating.”

The best way out was by air. The cost to charter a DC-10: $210,260.49.

The J.A. Jones people would get on first, then Bell Helicopter employees and those from companies that worked in the region, along with a few missionaries and teachers.

On Dec. 23, 1978, American Paul Grimm, a Texaco executive in Iran, was slain.

Marett knew it was time to go. Passengers could bring only what they could wear or put in small duffel bags.

Bobby Bunn, the business manager, was instructed to bring a briefcase with $100,000 in Iranian rials for bribes to make sure everyone got on board.

As New Year's weekend approached, World Airways, the California-based charter company, made a last stipulation: They wanted $20,000 in cash in case the pilots needed to make their own payoffs.

Johnie Jones called officials at Belks and Ivey's department stores in Charlotte, who cleared their cash registers.

Jan. 3 seemed to be filled with waiting and bribes. Finally all 273 seats of the plane were filled. But there was a hitch: The plane had clearance to land but not to depart. The pilot decided to go anyway and started down the runway about 2 p.m.

When they cleared Iranian airspace, cheers and hugs broke out.

Thirteen days later, the shah fled Iran for exile in Egypt. On Feb. 1, the ayatollah returned to Iran — and nine months later, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was stormed, and 52 Americans were taken hostage.

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