Early in the morning of November 4, 1979, an enraged group of medical and engineering students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took the whole staff as hostages. The students were enraged that Jimmy Carter had granted asylum to the Shah, the former leader of Iran, viewing that as confirmation that the Americans were planning a coup against the Islamic Revolution in order to reinstall the Shah. None of this was true (the Shah was dying of cancer for one) but it didn’t matter. The students planned to hold the embassy for 2-3 days while they searched for confirmation that the embassy was housing coup planners and spies. The leaders of the Resolution, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, however, quickly realized the embassy seizure was a political gold mine that allowed them to consolidate power and eliminate opponents. A completely botched rescue attempt further inflamed the Iranians. The crisis eventually ended with the election of Ronald Reagan, meaning the Iranians achieved their goal of keeping the hated Jimmy Carter to just a one-term presidency. The shameful episode was the first exposure to Islamic radicalism for many Americans, and it wouldn’t be the last.
444 Days in the Dark: An Oral History of the Iran Hostage Crisis
Mass shootings are sadly commonplace in America today but in 1966 the opposite was true. When Charles Whitman opened fire from the University of Texas Tower in 1966 it took awhile for people to understand what was happening. One group thought he was shooting pigeons. Some thought the victims were part of a theater troupe or a psychology department experiment. The University of Texas has ignored this seminal event in our history, with no official commemoration or memorial to the 17 dead, but the Texas Monthly does a commendable job of piecing together a comprehensive oral history from people in Austin at the time.
TexasMonthly.com, 8.2.16 (originally published in the August 2006 print edition)
Government Executive revisits various local, regional and national agencies response to the much-feared and ultimately catastrophic direct hit by a major hurricane on New Orleans and the surrounding low-lying Gulf Coast. Many of these agencies had participated in a large-scale simulation of this potential event just the year before (known as Hurricane Pam). The results were not encouraging and as Katrina strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico at the end of August, 2005, the same issues started to arise (lack of coordination, communication, leadership) and the outcome was as bad as feared, only this time the 2,000+ lives lost were real. The response was not universally bad, however, as numerous individuals and units responded heroically in the face of disaster, saving countless lives in the process.
Katrina 10: An Oral History
The Columbia Journalism Review provides a gripping chronological account by reporters on the scene of President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. There was the expected confusion and communication difficulties, but on the whole they got things about as factually correct as we do in the internet age. Their dedication to substantiated truth amidst a national tragedy is an honor to the profession.
The Assassination: The Reporters’ Story
archives.cjr.org, Winter 1964
In January of 1969 a fraudulently installed oil platform off of Santa Barbara, California, experienced a catastrophic failure that ruptured the sea floor and caused the largest American oil spill to that time. This was an era without regulation, oversight, or contingency planning, and Union Oil’s pathetic and patronizing response enraged conservationists around the globe, thus helping galvanize the fledgling environmental movement. The Pacific Standard provides an outstanding oral history of the disaster, including many images of the disaster and the response.
‘The Ocean Is Boiling’: The Complete Oral History of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill
The battered Louisiana Superdome became one of the iconic images of Hurricane Katrina, and the dire stories of its time as a “last-ditch” shelter were harrowing. It would close for two years and some wondered whether the Saints would ever return to the decimated city. However, the Saints were part of the fabric of the city like few other institutions, and when they returned it was one of the great moments in American sports history. Sports Illustrated provides an engrossing oral history of a team helping heal its city.
Ten years since Katrina: Oral history of the Saints and their Superdome
The shootings by police of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile on back-to-back days, followed the next day by the wanton murder of five police officers at the end of a peaceful protest, combined to shake many Americans to their core. Because it was 2016 cell-phone videos soon emerged of the shootings on social media and helped cement the outrage over unnecessary violence. Wired examines the shootings and the role social media played in forming public perception and inciting protest.
An Oral History of Three Days That Rocked America
Here are two pieces dedicated to the Olympic Park bombing in 1996. The first is from Sports Illustrated and includes shocking quotes from the cowardly bomber, Eric Rudolph. The second is from Atlanta Magazine and includes extensive anecdotes from security guard Richard Jewell, who was on the scene and was wrongly accused of the crime.
An oral history of the bombing that rocked the 1996 Atlanta Games
Fallout: An oral history of the Olympic Park bombing
The Los Angeles murders committed by Charles Manson’s “Family” stunned the nation. They were random, grotesquely violent, and ensnared innocent victims, including pregnant Hollywood star Sharon Tate. This well-documented piece includes passages from the authorities, Hollywood stars, and some members of the unholy “Family.”
Manson: An Oral History
American Photo provides a comprehensive four-part oral history documenting the harrowing experiences of the photographers on the ground during 9/11.
9.11.01: The Photographers’ Stories
The 7.8 earthquake on 4.25.15 devastated large parts of Nepal, although most westerners only saw footage of the resulting avalanche hitting a Mt. Everest base camp. About 100 miles west of Everest, however, the combination of the earthquake and avalanches caused epic destruction in a glacial valley between 20,000-foot peaks known as Langtang Valley. One village was wiped off the map. This is the story of those chaotic moments in the valley and the ensuing frustration regarding the lack of help from the overwhelmed Nepalese authorities.
An Oral History of Langtang, the Valley Destroyed by the Nepal Earthquake
Politico Magazine provides a heart-pounding recount of President Bush’s early reaction to 9/11, Air Force One’s dramatic journey, and the ultimate recognition of a new reality.
‘We’re the Only Plane in the Sky’
The 1986 Challenger explosion was uniquely awful because it carried schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and was broadcast live into hundreds of American schools. The repercussions would be felt for years.
An Oral History of the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster