(NEW YORK) — During the early days of the Libyans’ fight to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, Christopher Stevens wrangled a ride on a Greek cargo ship and sailed into the rebels’ stronghold city of Benghazi. He arrived at a time when the crackle of gunfire could be heard each night.
Stevens and his team didn’t even have a place to stay, but found space in a hotel briefly, moving out after a car bomb went off in the parking lot, according to his own account in State Magazine last year.
Stevens, whose diplomatic foothold were a couple of battered tables, was literally on the rebels’ side while the revolution was at its most vulnerable and in danger of being crushed by Gadhafi’s troops who were moving on the city. The threat was pushed back at the last minute by the intervention of NATO planes, which began bombing Gadhafi’s tanks and troops.
Stevens, who was elevated to ambassador four months ago, was killed Tuesday by militants who stormed the Benghazi consulate.
Stevens “will be remembered as a hero by many nations,” his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said Wednesday morning. “He risked his life to stop a tyrant then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya. The world needs more Chris Stevenses.”
President Obama, who ordered flags lowered to half-staff Wednesday, hailed the ambassador as a “role model to all he worked with and the young diplomats that strive to walk in his footsteps.”
One of the U.S. Embassy staff members who worked under Stevens tweeted that he “was the best person I have ever worked for.”
“I learned more from him in three months than I have in my adult life,” tweeted Hannah Draper, who is in the U.S. on leave from the embassy. “He loved Libya and Libyan people. He died doing what he believed in.”
In an August blog post, Draper said the ambassador was “legendary” in Libya because he stayed in the country through the revolution, “liaising with the rebels and leading a skeleton crew of Americans on the ground to support humanitarian efforts and meeting up-and-coming political leaders.”
“Several Libyans have told me how much it means to them that he stayed here throughout the revolution, losing friends and suffering privations alongside ordinary Libyans,” Draper wrote on her blog. “We could not ask for a better ambassador to represent America during this crucial period in Libyan history.”
Stevens, 52 and single, served as a special envoy to the Libyan Transitional National Council last year from March to November, according to his State Department biography. During his 21 years in the Foreign Service he also served in Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo and Saudi Arabia.
Stevens, who spoke French and Arabic, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, where he taught English for two years before returning to northern California to get his law degree from the University of California.
In a State Department video introducing Stevens as the new ambassador to Libya last May, Stevens says he “quickly grew to love this part of the world” during his time in the Peace Corps and since joining the Foreign Service “spent almost my entire career in the Middle East and Africa.”
He says in the video that he “was thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights” during the 2011 revolution, which ousted Gadhafi.
At his Senate confirmation hearing in March, Stevens said, “It will be an extraordinary honor to represent the United States during this historic period of transition in Libya.”
Three other Americans were killed in the U.S. Embassy attacks in Libya, including Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, who died of smoke inhalation after protestors set the embassy aflame. Smith was in Libya on a “brief, temporary assignment,” Clinton said.
Smith leaves behind his wife, Heather, and two young children, Samantha and Nathan.
President Obama called Smith’s wife, as well as Ambassador Stevens’ parents, aboard Air Force One on his way to Nevada Wednesday afternoon.
“On all of these calls, he has offered his condolences and made clear that his thoughts and prayers, and the thoughts and prayers of the American people, are with the family members of those we lost,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
“He thanked the family members for the service to their country that Ambassador Stevens and Mr. Smith provided and made clear his commitment that justice be done when it comes to finding out who is responsible for the attack that lead to their death,” he added.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
David Williams, CNN
Ashley Fantz, AnneClaire Stapleton and Ed Payne, CNN Newswire