While Hurricane Gilbert was racing across the Caribbean in September wreaking temporary havoc on the tourist resorts of Jamaica and the Mexican coast, the U.S. State Department was faced with something of a tidal wave here in Washington. More than 10,000 concerned Americans-and perhaps as many as 15,000-phoned in for information about friends and relatives vacationing in the hurricane's path.
"Where's my Uncle Harry? He went to Jamaica," was typical of the inquiries that poured in during the five days Gilbert was a life-threatening menace. During the storm's height, it severed commercial phone service to the resorts, and the folks at home had no way of contacting the vacationers. Nor could the vacationers phone home.
To handle the sudden flood of calls, the State Department set up a task force in the Overseas Citizens Services Office that staffed more than 20 phones on an around-the-clock basis until the crisis had passed. The State Department, maintaining contact with its consular offices in Mexico and Jamaica by cable and radio, was able to provide updated information to ease the worries of the callers. In many instances, it passed messages from vacationers informing their families that they had weathered the storm safely.
The Gilbert operation was just one of a multitude of little-known services provided Americans abroad by the Overseas Citizens Services Office, which this month is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The office tackles such important and diverse problems as tracing missing travelers, counseling Americans arrested abroad, arranging for the return of the bodies of tourists who die abroad, helping financially destitute Americans get back home and alerting travelers to potential dangers in troubled countries.
Since its inception, the office has handled a total of about 55,000 death cases and 33,000 arrests. It has checked into the welfare or whereabouts of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and made loans to some 12,000 American tourists stranded abroad.
The foreign news in any day's newspaper may signal a new and immediate challenge for the office, says T.A.D. Tharp, the deputy assistant secretary who has headed the office since 1985. For example, the reports last month of unrest in the Soviet republic of Armenia immediately triggered calls from Americans of Armenian descent. Parents with children studying or traveling in Armenia wanted word on their safety.
Often such concern is voiced first to a senator or representative who contacts Tharp's office on behalf of the constituent. "We get an enormous number of congressional inquiries," says Tharp. But citizens can also telephone the State Department directly. The office operates weekdays from 8:15 a.m. to 10 p.m., and a duty officer can be reached overnight or on weekends in case of an emergency.
Officials of Overseas Citizens Services describe it as the "retail services" side of the State Department. Its focus is on Americans traveling or living abroad; in effect, it is the "American Desk" in the lineup of official "desks" for every country with which the United States has diplomatic relations. The other side of the department is the one that deals with "the abstract issues of war and peace."
Perhaps 30 million Americans travel to a foreign country each year (many to Mexico and Canada), and about 2 million live abroad. When they encounter problems that can't be remedied with a call home, they contact the U.S. embassy or consulate. No other country, according to State Department officials, provides as comprehensive an "international safety net" for its traveling citizens.
The dramatic expansion of Americans heading for foreign lands in the '60s and '70s prompted the creation of the office. There was a need, says the State Department, "for a structure to provide government services to Americans overseas similar to those domestic services which our citizens and their congressional representatives had grown to expect."
The new office faced a horrendous test in its very first week a decade ago-the Jonestown tragedy in Guyana, which began on Nov. 18, 1978. "There was no precedent for 900 Americans committing suicide in the jungle," says Michael Mahoney, who heads the Citizens Emergency Center, one of the office's two divisions. The tasks ranged from answering the questions of bereaved relatives to identifying the bodies and shipping them home.
Among other dramatic events in the past decade to which the office has responded are airplane hijackings, the Grenada invasion and the massive earthquake in Mexico City.
One of Mahoney's ongoing responsibilities is to keep in frequent touch with the families of the nine American hostages held in Lebanon. "I call most of them about once a week. They have my home number and office number, and they are encouraged to call."
As its name implies, the Citizens Emergency Center responds to emergency situations. The office's other division is Citizens Consular Services, headed by Carmen DiPlacido. His responsibility is the somewhat more routine day-to-day concerns of Americans abroad. For example, the death of an American in a foreign country-an average of 5,000 a year-is initially an emergency. But if there are estate difficulties to be settled, it becomes DiPlacido's problem.
DiPlacido's division handles arrangements for the transfer of Americans imprisoned abroad so they can serve their sentences (presumably more comfortably) in U.S. jails. It helps resolve problems with federal retirement or other benefits due Americans living abroad. It deals with citizenship and dual nationality claims. It can answer questions about marrying a foreign national or getting married abroad. And it is working on an increasing number of child custody cases, where one parent takes a child to a foreign country over the objections of the other parent.
Overseas Americans with an emergency or other problem can contact the nearest embassy or consulate office. There are about 240 worldwide.
Among the specific ways the Overseas Citizens Services Office can assist Americans abroad (or friends and relatives concerned about them):
Notifying families at home: Americans caught in a natural disaster such as Hurricane Gilbert or a political disturbance or coup should get in contact with an embassy or consulate as quickly as possible. In some cases, this may be for their own safety, but it also is a way of easing the worries of relatives at home.
During Gilbert, says Mahoney, State Department officers in Jamaica and Mexico visited the scene of the damage to assess its extent and to determine if there were any injuries or deaths involving Americans. They also took the names of stranded Americans and transmitted them on a regular basis to the State Department in Washington. When relatives phoned, the department could inform them the vacationers were safe.
Making emergency money transfers: If you need to get money quickly to a friend or relative abroad-in an emergency situation-there are procedures by which the State Department can accomplish this. You take the money to Western Union, which telegraphs Overseas Citizens Services. The office then immediately notifies the appropriate embassy or consulate abroad to release the specified amount of money. "It's a very fast service," says Mahoney.
Providing emergency loans: The availability of discount airfares to Europe attracts many Americans, but "then they get over there," says DiPlacido, "and are shocked to find a cup of coffee costs $5." About 1,500 American travelers a year run out of money and have no ticket home. In cases of necessity, when no relatives are able to assist, the State Department will advance money for a ticket. Borrowers must sign a promissory note, and their passport may be restricted for travel only to the United States. In the past decade, "repatriation loans" totaling $5.5 million have been made to 12,000 travelers.
Checking on missing persons: "Americans travel all over the world to obscure corners," says Mahoney, and sometimes they delay in letting their families know where they are. Last year, his division handled 9,000 requests to locate the whereabouts of travelers out of contact with home. The center's job is easier if the family has the missing traveler's detailed itinerary.
"Imagine trying to find someone whose plan says only `summer in India,' " say officials. The center may contact police or immigration authorities, call tourist hotels, make inquiries of the country's international community or even ask a local radio or television station to broadcast an announcement. In most cases, the center "finds its mission souls."
However, if the missing travelers do not want their whereabouts revealed their privacy is protected. "It is treated very seriously," says Mahoney.
Delivering emergency messages: In cases of illness or death at home, the State Department will assist in trying to contact a traveling American. The department does not actually make a death notification. Instead, it tells the traveler of an emergency at home and that a phone call is expected. "We do a brisk business," says Mahoney. Last year, about 2,800 such messages were passed along.
Assisting arrested Americans: Last year, about 3,000 Americans were arrested and detained for at least 24 hours in a foreign country. About 40 percent of them faced illegal drug charges. The State Department cannot obtain the release of prisoners, but it can provide some assistance. Such aid includes notifying relatives at home, making a loan for food and medicine where they are inadequate, providing a list of English-speaking lawyers and explaining the local legal procedures.
"Many people think the U.S. Constitution protects them overseas," says DiPlacido. "It doesn't."
Keeping track of imprisoned Americans: About 1,300 U.S. citizens currently are serving jail terms abroad. The State Department visits each one at least once every three months or more frequently if conditions-such as health problems-require it. The Citizens Consular Services division can work for a prisoner transfer, if it is requested.
Issuing travel advisories: A major program of the Citizens Emergency Center is to maintain up-to-date information about the world's trouble spots as a way of safeguarding the lives of American travelers. Currently warnings involving about 50 countries are in effect. The center answers hundreds of queries a day about travel to potentially dangerous areas.
Advisories may note such risky situations as violent political unrest, ongoing street demonstrations, an evening curfew, protests against the U.S. government and-in a few countries-marauding bandits in remote areas. The advisories are distributed to major newspapers, travel agencies and international airlines and are posted in passport offices. Travelers also can phone the Citizens Emergency Center in Washington (647-5225) and ask to be read any advisory concerning a country on their itinerary.
For the future, the State Department is working on the possibility of a computer setup that would automatically print out any current advisory involving a particular nation whenever a traveler purchases an airline ticket to that nation.
Attempting to resolve child-custody cases: "It's a hot issue," says DiPlacido. Each U.S embassy and consulate has a designated child-custody coordinator. When requested by the aggrieved parent, a coordinator will visit the abducted child to determine the state of the child's welfare. Often the coordinator's report is the first news the parent at home gets of the whereabouts of the child.
The State Department cannot recover the child, but it can inform the aggrieved parent about a foreign country's child-custody laws and provide a list of custody attorneys. Often the coordinator's official visit will help initiate an attempt to resolve the dispute amicably between the two parents. If the abducting parent forbids access to the child, the coordinator will notify the country's social-service officials.
Awhile back, television executives expressed some interest in making a pilot show for a possible series on the varied activities of Overseas Citizens Services. The office deals daily with any number of compelling human-interest stories. "One of these days," says Tharp, the chief, "I predict Hollywood will come along."
December 1, 1987, Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management, Good Journalism vs. What Sells, by Ray Cave, 700+ words
Here, in order, are the nine best-selling covers in my eight years as editor of Time: 12/4/78, The Jonestown Massacre; 12/22/80, John Lennon's Murder; 3/19/84, Michael Jackson; 8/2/82, Herpes; 3/6/78, Cheryl Tiegs; 11/7/77, Richard Leakey; 6/2/80, The Mt. St. Helen's Eruption; 2/27/78, Muhammad Ali; and 7/14/80, Aching Backs__________________________________________________________________________
March 15, 1991, The Boston Globe, Ask The Globe, 281 words
Q. How many died in Jonestown? J.S., Winthrop
A. Rev. Jim Jones and, according to an Associated Press tally, 912 other people died Nov. 18, 1978, in a 300-acre settlement in a tropical rain forest 140 miles from Georgetown, capital of the tiny South American nation of Guyana. The AP account relates how Jones, leader of the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple, urged his disciples to drink grape-flavored punch laced with potassium cyanide. Not all of the victims died of poisoning; some were shot by security guards. Jones himself was found with a bullet wound in his head, but it is not known whether he took his own life or was shot by someone else. The massacre occurred hours after Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), three newsmen and a temple defector died in an ambush at an airstrip in nearby Port Kaituma. Eleven others were wounded. Ryan had flown to Guyana to investigate reports that Jones was abusing his followers.
August 31, 1991, The Washington Post, Foreign Service Officer Richard A. Dwyer Dies, 465 words
Richard Alan Dwyer, 58, a retired Foreign Service officer who received the State Department's Award for Valor for his actions in Guyana during the 1978 Jonestown massacre, died Aug. 29 at Sibley Memorial Hospital of complications after gall bladder surgery.
Mr. Dwyer joined the Foreign Service in Washington in 1957, and he retired in 1984. In retirement, he had been an investment adviser. At his death, he was director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the National Association of Investors Corporation and led its computer group.
A resident of Washington, he was born in Evanston, Ill., and graduated from Dartmouth College. He received a master's degree in public administration from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
His Foreign Service career included posts in Syria, Egypt and Bulgaria. He had been deputy chief of mission and charge d'affairs at U.S. embassies in Chad and Guyana. His last post before retiring was consul general for the French Caribbean in Martinique.
His Award for Valor was for action taken in November 1978, when members of the cult settlement at Jonestown in Guyana attacked a group led by Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.) at the Port Kaiturna airstrip, which was the supply point for the settlement.
Ryan, who was investigating reports that some of his constituents were being coerced to remain in the settlement, was killed in the attack, as were three television journalists. Mr. Dwyer, who had been Ryan's embassy escort, was wounded, but nevertheless led the survivors into the nearby jungle, where they hid from further attack. They were rescued the next day, the same day the mass suicide that killed more than 900 members of the cult settlement was discovered.
Mr. Dwyer was a member of DACOR (Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired) and St. Thomas Apostle Catholic Church in Washington.
Survivors include his wife of 33 years, Sara Height Dwyer, and two children, Elizabeth and Timothy Dwyer, all of Washington.
September 30, 2001, San Francisco Chronicle, Chilling parallels to the Rev. Jim Jones,
It's a terrifying story about a man of power, privilege and paranoia. Chased from his homeland, he declared himself a prophet of God and political revolutionary.
Condemning capitalism, he and his fanatical army of devotees fled to an isolated, impoverished country. Once there, they plotted an unimaginable act of mass murder and suicide -- all in the name of God.
Osama bin Laden and his self-styled band of "Islamic" militants?
No, the Rev. Jim Jones and his San Francisco Peoples Temple, a "Christian" church.
As more details emerge about the hijackers responsible for this month's World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, one way to understand the cult of bin Laden is to look back at the horrors of Jonestown.
Jones was an ordained minister with the Disciples of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination. He came to Northern California from Indiana during the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s, he had emerged as a major political player in San Francisco politics, with close ties to then-Assemblyman Willie Brown and the late Mayor George Moscone.
Jones attracted many low-income African Americans and left-leaning Caucasians with his racially integrated church and fiery speeches in which he denounced the U.S. government for committing "terrorism" at home and abroad.
Amid a mounting government and media probe, he and his followers fled to the South American nation of Guyana in 1978, where more than 900 people died in a macabre ritual of murder and mass suicide. Many temple members willingly drank cyanide-laced "Flavor-Aid," some had it poured down their throats and others were shot.
Jones tape-recorded the horror of that "White Night" suicide ritual in his jungle compound, known as Jonestown.
Today, a look back at the transcript of his instructions shows a chilling resemblance to the handwritten "last night" document found in the luggage of Mohamed Atta, alleged ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Atta document reads:
"Everybody hates death, fears death. But only those believers who know the life after death and the reward after death would be the ones who would be seeking death. . . . You will be entering paradise."Jones said:
"It's the will of (the) Sovereign Being that this is happening to us. . . . Don't be afraid to die. . . . There's nothing to death. It's just stepping over to another plane."Both sets of followers were told they were not committing ordinary acts of suicide -- something that violates the tenets of both Christianity and Islam.
Atta's letter, similar to a document found in the wreckage of Flight 93, assures the hijackers that they are committing an act of martyrdom. They will soon "be entering paradise . . . entering the happiest life, everlasting life."
Jones also promised paradise. Amid the screaming cries of infants and mothers killing their own babies, he said, "Look, children, it's just something to put you to rest. . . . Death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life."
His final words on the Jonestown "White Night" tape are: "We didn't commit suicide.
"We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."
During the past decade, there have been more Jonestowns.
Seventy-two members of the Branch Davidian Christian sect died when a hellish inferno engulfed their compound in Waco, Texas. That showdown with the federal government helped inspire ex-Marine Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Oklahoma City Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, killing 168 people on the second anniversary of the Waco raid.
In Japan, the Aum Shinri Kyo cult unleashed a nerve-gas attack on Tokyo subway riders, killing 12 and sickening thousands. In Canada and Europe, 75 members of the Order of the Solar Temple killed themselves in search of new life in a place called Sirius.
And in the spring of 1997, thirty-nine members of Heaven's Gate, a Southern California cult blending Bible prophecy, spiritualism and UFO lore, killed themselves in the belief that they would rendezvous with a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
Authorities on cult movements and religious fanaticism remind us that these acts are often carried out -- not by mindless zombies -- but by sincere ideological converts. They see themselves as engaged in a "cosmic war," acting out real-life battles of "performance violence."
Sadly, few of those cult experts think we've seen the final act of that performance of death