(WASHINGTON) — The size and “lethality” of the attack on the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead was “unprecedented,” according to a senior State Department official.
Senior State Department officials Tuesday gave the most detailed account to-date of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, which killed Ambassador Stevens and three other diplomats. One official said the nature of the assault was unparalleled in recent history.
“The lethality and number of armed people is unprecedented,” one of the officials said. “There was no attack anywhere in Libya — Tripoli or Benghazi — like this, So it is unprecedented and would be very, very hard to find a precedent like that in recent diplomatic history.”
Though the timeline of events outlined was similar to the last official account of the incident, which was given on Sept. 12, some stark differences and new details were revealed.
The biggest difference was a clear statement that there were no protests before the attack. Also it was revealed that former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods died from a mortar attack and that officials still do not know how Stevens, who was suffering from severe smoke inhalation, made it from the compound to the hospital.
The officials gave reporters a vivid narrative of the events of the night, painting a picture of exactly what the compound looked like.
There were four buildings in the main compound, according to the State Department’s narrative: The barracks where the local guards were housed; Building C, which is the main building that contained Stevens’ residence; Building B, a building on the compound; and the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) that served as the main security and communications center for the compound.
The area of the compound was about the size of a football field, with a nine-foot-high wall, topped by three feet of barbed wire.
On Sept. 11, Stevens did not leave the compound because of security fears due to the 9/11 anniversary. He had arrived in Benghazi the day before with five guards in total. Two additional Diplomatic Security agents from Tripoli were with him in addition to the three agents normally detailed to the compound.
Though some administration officials had initially said that the attack grew out of protests over an anti-Muslim film, the senior State Department official told reporters today that “nothing was out of the ordinary” on the night of the attack.
At 8:30 p.m., the ambassador said goodnight to a visiting Turkish diplomat outside the compound and the streets were empty. But at 9:40 p.m., noises, gunfire and an explosion were heard by the agents located in the TOC and Building B.
The agent in the TOC looked at one of the camera feeds monitoring the perimeter and saw a large group of armed men entering the compound. Asked about the initial reports of the protests, the official said that while “others” in the administration may have said there were protests, the State Department did not.
“That was not our conclusion,” the official said. “I’m not saying that we had a conclusion.”
This starts a series of events during which Stevens, Information Specialist Sean Smith and the agent locked themselves in a safe area in Building C. The area is set aside from the rest of the building by a metal grille with several locks and contained a small room with water and medical supplies.
From the safe haven room where Stevens, Smith and the agent were hiding they could see the men roaming throughout the house, trying to open grates, looking for them.
When the men didn’t find anyone, they poured diesel fuel all over the rooms and furniture, setting the house on fire. As black smoke, diesel fumes and fumes from the burning furniture filled up the safe haven, the three tried to get to the bathroom area where there was a small window to open it for air, which did not help.
At this point, the official said, the security officer, Smith and the ambassador were on the ground gasping for air and suffering from “severe” smoke inhalation and decided to take their chances and get out of the safe haven and building.
The security agent led the way, but when he got outside he realized that neither Smith nor the ambassador had made it after him.
He went back in several times to find them, but eventually had to leave because he was overcome by the strong smoke. He climbed to a safe area outside of the building and radioed for help. Meanwhile the other agents in the compound had gone to Building B to get helmets, body armor and their “long guns.” They headed back, but after encountering a large group of armed men, they decided to head back to Building B to barricade themselves, and the two agents in the TOC did the same.
The attackers attempted to enter both buildings, but failed.
After the agent in Building C’s unsuccessful attempt to find his colleagues he radioed to the other four that building C was on fire. This was the first time they realized the building was on fire.
A quick reaction security team of six agents from the building roughly a mile away, known as the “annex,” arrived at the compound with 16 members of the local Libyan militia, the 17th of February Brigade.
They set up a perimeter around Building C, where Stevens and Smith were still inside, which allowed the two agents to take over the task of looking for Stevens and Smith.
Under heavy, thick black smoke the agents took turns looking for the missing diplomats, feeling their way around on their hands and knees. They finally found Smith dead, and pulled him out, but did not find Stevens.
Outnumbered by “an unbelievable amount of bad guys” in the compound the militia fighters told the security team they had to evacuate, according to the State Department official.
“We’ve got to leave, we can’t hold the perimeter,” the official said the militia told the team.
The security team then loaded up into an armored vehicle and headed slowly to the annex building. They took heavy fire as they emerged from the compound’s main gate and turned back twice upon encountering crowds and small groups of armed men.
They came upon a group of armed men in an adjacent compound who motioned them to turn inside. The official said the agents “smelled a rat and stepped on it,” taking heavy fire at short range, which damaged the armored vehicle. Despite two flat tires, they kept moving, and when they were stopped again, this time by traffic, the team careened over a median and drove against traffic until they reached the annex.
But the annex was not safe either, and began to come under intermittent AK-47 and RPG fire for the next several hours.
By that time a team of security reinforcements had arrived at the annex in Benghazi from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli aboard a chartered aircraft to help with the fight.
At 4 a.m., the annex took “precise” mortar fire with some of the rounds landing on the roof, immediately killing Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods and severely wounding another security officer, official said.
At this point the U.S. team was outmatched and a decision was made that they would have to evacuate the annex, the official said. The next hours were spent securing the annex and moving everyone to the airport in Benghazi, where they were evacuated on two flights back to Tripoli.
Stevens was not seen by the security team again until his body was delivered to the airport, officials said, and they still do not know how he reached the Libyan hospital where attempts were made to treat him.
Officials said that, in fact, they were informed that Stevens was at the hospital only after doctors found his cell phone and began phoning people on his recent call list.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN