WASHINGTON — As four flag-draped coffins bearing the bodies of the Americans killed in Libya arrived in the United States on Friday, new details emerged of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s final hours, alone, locked in a smoke-filled room in a diplomatic mission under siege.
In a solemn ceremony at Joint Base Andrews outside the capital, President Obama said the victims “laid down their lives for us all” and vowed to honor their memory by never retreating from the world.
The arrival, broadcast live on news channels, proved an emotional culmination to an episode that has rocked Washington and American embassies around the world, even as details of those final fateful moments only now began to come clear. When the attack on the diplomatic compound occurred, officials said, Ambassador Stevens was separated from his security detail — and was located only later, at the hospital in Benghazi, where he had been pronounced dead.
Officials in Washington said they were investigating that blacked-out period, but as they conduct that inquiry, witnesses have emerged who said that Mr. Stevens had fled to a room in the diplomatic compound, hoping to find safety behind a locked iron gate and wooden door. But fires raged around the mission, and Mr. Stevens, unable to escape the smoke and heat, died of asphyxiation.
Witnesses say he was eventually discovered by people who rushed to see what was happening at the mission. They broke a window, spotted Mr. Stevens, who might or might not have been unconscious at the time, and removed him from the room.
According to guards at the compound, the attack began at about 9:30 p.m., without advance warning or any peaceful protest. “I started hearing, ‘God is great! God is great!’ ” one guard said. “I thought to myself, maybe it is a passing funeral.” (All the guards spoke on the condition of anonymity for their safety.)
“Attack, attack,” the guard said he heard an American calling over his walkie-talkie as the chants came closer. Suddenly there came a barrage of gunfire, explosions and rocket-propelled grenades.
“I saw the ambassador’s personal bodyguard — the one who was killed — running toward the villa where the ambassador was,” he said. Armed only with a light weapon, the bodyguard “was running there to protect him.”
Another Libyan guard said he saw Mr. Stevens escorted to the office in a wing off the main mission building, the room with an iron gate behind a wooden door. Three hours later, about 12:30 a.m., witnesses said that a crowd — possibly looters — broke through a tall and narrow window and found Mr. Stevens.
The compound’s landlord, Jamal al-Bishari, said that while watching from nearby he saw some people climb through the broken window and emerge soon after, carrying Mr. Stevens.
The wing where Mr. Stevens had sought refuge contained at least three rooms and two bathrooms, and aside from the extensive smoke damage it appeared on Friday to be largely undamaged.
Very shortly after Mr. Stevens was seen carried out of the window, he arrived at Benghazi’s main hospital, brought by a group of Libyan civilians, according to Ziad Abu Zeid, a doctor there. In a separate interview he said that the civilians did not seem to know that the American they were helping was the ambassador, a well-known and popular figure locally but now covered in dark soot. Dr. Abu Zaid said that Mr. Stevens was dressed and did not suffer any trauma, aside from the smoke inhalation. Because of the soot covering his face, the doctor said, he also initially failed to recognize Mr. Stevens. He said he eventually did so from photographs posted by admiring residents on Facebook.
The doctor said he tried for at least 45 minutes to resuscitate Mr. Stevens. He said he believed that officers from the Libyan Interior Ministry transported the body to the airport and into United States custody.
State Department officials have said they do not know Mr. Stevens’s whereabouts during the battle, who took him to the hospital or who carried his body to the airport and into United States custody.
“We don’t know what happened with Chris Stevens,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday. “We also had, we believe, acts of mercy and generosity later at the hospital in Benghazi. We very, very much appreciate this.”
American officials were also still trying to get more clarity on the arrests of four men said to be involved in the attacks. But as they continue sorting through intelligence, they have disputed suggestions floated in Washington and abroad that the attack in Benghazi was premeditated.
“We have no indication that that’s the case,” an administration official said. The current information available to the White House suggests that the protests in Benghazi were spontaneous and spurred by the Cairo protests but evolved over time as Islamic extremists took advantage of the situation, called in reinforcements and weaponry and mounted an attack.
When Mr. Stevens’s coffin arrived at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington on Friday, along with those of the three other Americans killed in the attack, President Obama said: “Four Americans, four patriots — they loved this country, and they chose to serve it and served it well. They had a mission, and they believed in it. They knew the danger, and they accepted it. They didn’t simply embrace the American ideal; they lived it, they embodied it.”
Mr. Obama called Mr. Stevens “everything America could want in an ambassador.”
Of the three others killed in the attack, he said Sean Smith, a Foreign Service officer and an Air Force veteran, had “lived to serve.” Tyrone S. Woods, a former member of the Navy SEALs providing diplomatic security, was “the consummate quiet professional.” And Glen A. Doherty, also a former member of the SEALs providing security, “never shied from adventure.”
“Even in our grief we will be resolute, for we are Americans,” Mr. Obama said. “And we hold our head high, knowing that because of these patriots, because of you, this country that we love will always shine as a light unto the world.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who looked stricken and seemed to be fighting her emotions, echoed those sentiments. “We will wipe away our tears, stiffen our spines and face the future undaunted,” she said. All four worked for her, and she spoke slowly and with evident grief. She knew Mr. Stevens personally, she said, praising his “goofy but contagious” smile, his “California cool” and, mostly, his dedication and courage.
“What a wonderful gift you gave us,” she told his family. “Over his distinguished career in the Foreign Service, Chris won friends for the United States in far-flung places. He made those people’s hopes his own. During the revolution in Libya, he risked his life to help protect the Libyan people from a tyrant, and he gave his life helping them build a better country.”
Her voice grew stronger again as she called on leaders in the Middle East to fulfill their obligations to protect diplomatic posts. “The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob,” she said. “Reasonable people and responsible leaders in these countries need to do everything they can to restore security and hold accountable those behind these violent acts.”