The Oscar-nominated film-maker and war photographer was capturing images of fighting between Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and Libyan rebels in Misrata when he was caught in a mortar attack on April 20, 2011.
His American colleague Chris Hondros, 41, was also killed in the attack, while a number of other journalists including British photographer Guy Martin were injured by flying shrapnel.
Speaking after an inquest into his death at Westminster Coroner’s Court yesterday, his mother Judith cried as she said: “He was an image maker and storyteller, that is how he liked to be described. He was a wonderful humanitarian.”
The court heard that Mr Hetherington had arrived in Misrata on April 17 with a small group of photographers.
On April 20, the photojournalists came under heavy fire while seeking images along Tripoli Street in the company of rebel fighters.
In a written statement, Mr Martin said: “The fighting and level of violence we witnessed that morning was catastrophic, with hand-to-hand fighting, grenades being thrown, buildings being set on fire with loyalist troops still inside and incoming mortar fire coming from miles away.”
Mr Martin, who is based in Istanbul, Turkey, said that after the battle seemed to have finished Mr Hetherington and the rest of the group “considered we had pushed our luck that day”.
They went back to their base and had different views on what they should do with the rest of their day. But Mr Hetherington argued that they should stay with the rebel fighters and it was his view which prevailed, the court heard.
Returning to Tripoli Street, the group found themselves caught up in a second battle.
Describing the fatal attack, Mr Martin said: “For a brief mili-second I saw Chris (Hondros) stumble in front me – I looked up and was surrounded by thick grey dust.
“The ground seemed to be on fire as smoke rose up from the pavement. I could see my legs were still attached to my body but I could hear little and began to lose consciousness.”
Mr Martin said he only found out about the deaths of Mr Hetherington and Mr Hondros from another journalist as he was trying to flee the country a week later.
The court heard that New York Times reporter and former US marine Chris Chivers had inspected the scene afterwards.He concluded that the mortar attack which killed Mr Hetherington had come from loyalist forces.
Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, deputy Westminster coroner Dr Shirley Radcliffe said: “He was not a soldier, he was an innocent photographer.”