When he and his American colleagues reached the rebel-held city, they were greeted by a group of Libyans carrying U.S., British, French and Qatari flags in the courthouse square. Mr. Stevens said he and the other Americans found that they had no place to sleep, so they bunked that first night back on the ship.
The improbable journey was fitting for Mr. Stevens, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was fluent in Arabic and who had traveled throughout the Middle East. An easygoing but determined career diplomat, he had made the region the focus of his two-decade career.
Describing the episode during a visit to Washington, he played down the dangers inherent in opening a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Instead, he focused on explaining his mission there: to support a democratic transition in Libya, which had been ruled by Moammar Gaddafi for four decades.
“It’s especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi, because it is a city that he helped to save,” President Obama, standing alongside Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said in a brief tribute Wednesday at the White House. “He worked tirelessly to support this young democracy.”
The attack on the U.S. Consulate building also killed diplomat Sean Smith, 34, an Air Force veteran who had served in various U.S. missions over the past decade, as well as two other diplomats whose identities have not been released, pending notification of their families. Mr. Stevens, 52, was the first sitting U.S. ambassador to be killed in a violent attack since 1979.
Officials said the ambassador, who was stationed at the embassy in Tripoli, was visiting the consulate at the time of the attack. The apparent cause of his death was smoke inhalation, according to several U.S. officials briefed on the attack, although the State Department has not confirmed that.
‘Courage and talent’
Funny and charming, with a broad smile and wide curiosity, Mr. Stevens made friends easily and kept them, colleagues said. He was well-known for haggling at the shops of the Old City in Jerusalem and lingering over coffee in the walled Old City in Tripoli.
“We were on opposite sides in a way,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former top adviser to the Palestinian Authority who first dealt with Mr. Stevens during peace negotiations.
“During a meeting, he was very proper and professional. Having a coffee after the meeting, he was very friendly” and asked a lot of questions, Omari said. “You ended up with a diplomat who had texture.”
Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns said Wednesday that he had followed Mr. Stevens’s career and believed him to be one of “the very finest officers of his generation in the Foreign Service.”