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They loaded Americans, Australians, Canadians and Maltese desperate to leave Libya, the ambassador said.

“When the boat was ready to disembark, it turned out Mother Nature was no longer on our side,” Mr. Kmiec explained in an email to Pepperdine University in California, where he taught law before assuming the post as ambassador in September.

The United States faced criticism for the delay in the rescue, but the ambassador said there was nothing else to do with the Mediterranean churning 15-foot waves in gale-force winds.

“The choice seemed to be risk drowning or sitting for an indefinite period of time, as a possible sitting duck,” he said.

Mr. Kmiec, directing the mission from the U.S. Embassy in the Maltese capital of Valleta, stayed in touch with the crew and diplomatic rescue team by a satellite phone that provided what he called “fragmentary” communication.

The ferry finally departed for Malta on Feb. 23, he said.

“During the voyage, Secretary of State [Hillary Rodham] Clinton called to wish the crew and passengers a safe journey, and, some 30 or more hours later, the vessel arrived back in Malta,” the ambassador wrote.

As they waited for the weather to calm and listened to the sounds of fighting on shore in Tripoli, he said, the refugees were “literally between hell and high water.”

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or email