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‘It’s Only a Drill,’ Steen Said--Then a Long Hostage Nightmare Began : Profile: The former Marine held a number of reporting and editing jobs at small California newspapers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alann Steen had been at Beirut University College only a few days in the fall of 1983 when he spotted another new arrival looking lost and forlorn on the front steps.

“My luggage hadn’t arrived. I was a mess. I felt like I wanted to cry,” Virginia Steen recalled in an interview last year, describing that first meeting with the man who would become her husband. “It was so nice to see another friendly American face.”

Both had answered Beirut University College’s advertisement in the Chronicle of Higher Education. For a while, their lives in Beirut together seemed almost perfect. They were fascinated by their students, who came from 26 countries.

They traveled to Egypt, Turkey and Thailand. Steen revived a defunct newspaper, the Daily Star, but it closed again a year later as more English-speakers left Beirut. Steen also hoped to set up a journalism center at the college.

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But by the fall of 1986 the danger around them was growing, and the Steens contemplated moving to Cairo to escape it. “We took it very, very seriously,” Virginia Steen insisted. “We were careful all the time.”

Still, they never thought that terrorism would strike where it finally did--on the peaceful campus where they taught.

In January, 1987, they were summoned to a meeting. It had been called by the head of campus security, so they were not surprised to see men in uniform. Suddenly, the men turned their guns on the little group and ordered Steen, Robert Polhill, Jesse Turner and Mithileshwar Singh handcuffed.

“Don’t worry, darling,” Steen called to his wife of six months as he was led away by members of the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine. “It’s only a drill.”

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Singh, Turner and Polhill have since been released.

Over the last 4 1/2 years, Virginia Steen endured death threats against her husband. “The first one--only three weeks after the men were taken--was the worst,” she said. Later, she would realize that such threats were part of the torture. “It happened to almost every (hostage) family at one point or another,” she said.

There also were periodic reports that Steen’s health had deteriorated and that he was suffering from high blood pressure and breathing difficulties. In an April, 1987, videotape, Turner--still a hostage at the time--said that Steen was in “pitiful” health. “We fear that his life may be over in a few hours.” But it appeared that Turner may have been reading remarks prepared by their captors because they contained numerous grammatical errors.

A month later, the Muslim kidnapers released a videotape of Steen, who appeared to be in good health. He, too, read an awkwardly phrased statement that seemed to have been written by the hostage-holders.

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An avid and robust outdoorsman, Steen once wrote an article for the magazine Outdoor Life about facing down a grizzly bear when he was alone in the Alaska wilds. But Virginia Steen said that, judging by recent photographs, much of that vigor evaporated during his captivity. Her 52-year-old husband appeared to have lost about 60 pounds, she said not long before his release.

Steen also was reported to have attempted an escape, only to be captured and beaten so badly that the fillings were knocked from his teeth.

Steen had been married twice before and had two children from his first marriage. According to Virginia Steen, his childhood in Texas, New York and Massachusetts was a difficult one, marred by the breakup of his parents’ marriage. His father worked for RKO Radio, but Steen never knew him well.

A former Marine who had been based in Tokyo, he held a number of reporting and editing jobs at small California newspapers. For more than a decade, he taught journalism at his alma mater, Humboldt State University in Arcata, and briefly at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka. He was a journalism instructor at Cal State Chico in 1983, when he applied for the job in Beirut.

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According to a 1985 account that he gave the Arcata Union, his move to Beirut destroyed his second marriage. His wife objected but visited him there, then filed for divorce.

While was in captivity, his two daughters married and he twice became a grandfather. Daughter Jackie Steen Scardino of Thousand Oaks named her son Jordan Alann Scardino in honor of the grandfather who may not even have known he existed. The child is now 2 1/2 years old.

Virginia Steen stayed in Beirut until May, 1989. It helped to be near the other hostages’ wives, she said, adding: “Thank God we didn’t all have our bad days on the same day.”

Together, the families ran advertisements in local newspapers and “went to every spiritual and political leader we could think of,” she said.

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Finally, she moved back to Michigan to resume her graduate studies and be near her parents as she waited for her husband’s release. As each hostage was freed, Steen rejoiced with the other families--but she also worried. “I can’t deal with the thought of one being left behind,” she said.

She often tried to imagine what her husband might be doing and thinking--probably writing, if he could, and exercising and reading. Mostly Virginia prayed that he had not lost the sense of humor she first saw that day on the front steps.

“I hope he still is recalling those terrible old jokes,” she added in the interview last year. Then she said with a sigh: “I miss hearing them now.”


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