Former Air Force colonel held hostage in Iran dies in Arizona

Thomas E. Schaefer, a retired Air Force colonel who was the ranking military officer among the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days before being released in 1981, has died in Arizona. He was 85.

David Schaefer said Friday that his father died of congestive heart failure Tuesday at a hospice in Scottsdale.

Schaefer was a military attache at the U.S. embassy in Tehran when militants seized the compound on Nov. 4, 1979, and 66 people were taken hostage.

From the first day of the takeover, Schaefer was singled out for special attention. As the ranking U.S. military officer in the embassy, he was accused of running a “nest of spies.”

His captors paraded him blindfolded in front of television cameras and threatened repeatedly to put him on trial and execute him.

He spent 150 days in solitary confinement and began his captivity enduring 14 days of relentless interrogation in a freezing prison cell with damp floors and only a thin blanket for warmth.

“I could see my breath the entire time,” Schaefer said in a 2004 interview. “They were breaking me down both physically and mentally. I could feel myself losing it.”

He said he used a pin to punch a code into his Bible daily to get through the hostage ordeal.

Schaefer was among the last hostages who were released on Jan. 20, 1981. Just before the aircraft bringing the hostages home entered U.S. airspace, the co-pilot invited Schaefer to take his seat in the cockpit.

Schaefer retired from the Air Force less than two years later and was a professional speaker for decades.

His family said he spoke to more than a quarter-million students and adults about facing adversity.

“Really, he was a positive guy,” David Schaefer said Friday. “He tried to educate and help people deal with really bad situations in their lives.”

In 1998, Schaefer said the United States should re-establish relations with Iran for strategic reasons. But in 2013 he denounced the Iran nuclear deal as “foolishness,” saying he didn’t know of any Iranian leaders who could be trusted.

Born in Rochester, N.Y., Schaefer was a bomber pilot for the Air Force — first flying B-47s and then B-52s before he switched to administrative positions.

In retirement, Schaefer and his wife lived in Arizona for the last 30 years, first in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria and then in Scottsdale since 2013.

Schaefer is survived by his wife of 63 years, Anita; two sons, six grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

There will be a service at Arlington National Cemetery this fall.

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