BANGKOK, Thailand -- A Thai cook who became the unsung hero of the Iranian hostage crisis by helping five American diplomats escape from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran may be rewarded with a new life in America, U.S. officials said Friday.
Somchai Sriwaewnetr, a 39-year-old cook who worked for several U.S. diplomatic families at the time of the hostage seizure, hid and fed the five diplomats for seven days after the November 4, 1979, takeover of the American Embassy by Iranian militants.
He also passed secret messages -- in the Thai language so the Iranians could not understand them -- to another U.S. diplomat detained inside the Iranian Foreign Ministry and destroyed incriminating documents at the homes of several of the hostages.
U.S. officials said the five diplomats Somchai helped had asked Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., to initiate a special bill to allow Somchai, his wife and their three children to emigrate to the United States.
The reward of a new life in America was the idea of former hostage Victor Tomseth, now assigned to the State Department in Washington, who relayed secret messages through Somchai while being held the Iranian Foreign ministry.
Somchai had been Tomseth's cook when the American was earlier stationed in Thailand and had followed Tomseth to Iran. After Tomseth was taken hostage, he telephoned Somchai and spoke with him in Thai -- a language his captors did not understand.
In an interview with UPI, Somchai said Tomseth called him shortly after the embassy takeover and asked him to help five other diplomats who were trapped in the British Embassy. Somchai collected the five, took them to his own home and hid them for a week.
'When the militants began searching around our compound, I called the Canadian Embassy and they sent a big car to pick the Americans up,' said Somchai.
'I didn't hear anything more about them until they left the country and the Canadian Embassy was closed down. Then the militants began looking for me.
'When I was helping those gentlemen by following Mr. Tomseth's instructions, I never thought I would get anything in return,' Somchai said.
'But it will be nice to live in the United States because I am not making enough money for our living here.'
Once Somchai gets to the United States, he plans to work as a cook until he can save enough money to open his own restuarant. He said he has begun work on his memoirs, '570 days in Iran,' and hopes to find a publisher.
Somchai himself had a narrow escape from Iran. The embassy militants misspelled his name on an 'arrest warrant' and he managed to slip past airport police.
When he finally arrived home in January, only four days before the 52 embassy hostages themselves were released, he was penniless. Embassy staffers in Bangkok took up a collection for him and he was able to find a job in a hotel.