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American killed in Afghanistan a 'passionate believer'

  • Story Highlights
  • Atlanta native Thor Hesla, 45, died Monday in suicide bombing of Kabul hotel
  • In e-mail to friends, he said Afghan capital had "astonishing beauty"
  • Memorials planned for U.S. contractor in D.C. and hometown of Atlanta
  • Taliban claims attack which killed seven at hotel frequented by Westerners
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(CNN) -- Friends and family planned a memorial service in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday for Thor Hesla, who died in Monday's attack on a luxury hotel in Afghanistan.

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Friends describe Thor Hesla as a "passionate believer" and "larger than life."

Hesla, 45, loved a game of ultimate Frisbee, a motorcycle ride and a great adventure. Friends say he found no adventure greater than helping people.

He set off for another adventure in October, this time to Afghanistan to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, to help build civil society.

"Thor Hesla was a passionate believer in what is possible in the world ," said a statement posted online by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a friend of 20 years.

The Taliban said it was behind the attack that killed him, carried out by suicide bombers and gunmen. Six other people were killed at Kabul's Serena hotel that day.

Six days after Hesla arrived in Afghanistan, he had e-mailed details of his new surroundings to his far-away friends.

Despite the violence wracking the nation, Hesla described Kabul as a city with potential and "astonishing beauty."

He said he was struck by glimpses of "desperately poor" Afghans. "I saw a man moving down the street who was, literally, wearing only rags yesterday," Hesla wrote.

He expressed pride in his work and the American effort to rebuild Afghanistan, writing, "You are forcibly reminded how good and inspirational Americans can be."

Life in Kabul isn't easy. Diplomats and contractors in Afghanistan are under strict security and their travel is severely restricted.

A witness to Monday's attack said terrorists forced their way into the hotel gym and shot three or four people who were working out. Video Watch witness describe the attack »

Hesla's friends said he joined the hotel's gym and spa as a diversion from his limited daily routine.

"You're always, always, always, reminded how great a blessing it is to come from a land which has never known -- since 1865 -- serious war," Hesla wrote his friends, referring to the Civil War. "It's really difficult to calculate how damaging all-out war can be on a society."

"He was very passionate about everything," said friend Stefan Tigges, according to CNN affiliate WGCL. "He was very generous. He was very spirited, very kind."

Tigges told the Atlanta TV station his friend was "larger than life in every way in terms of his sense of humor, his intellect, his capacity to love, all these things."

At Atlanta's Emory University, Hesla studied English literature and played rugby. He also worked for the Atlanta Olympic Committee and various Democratic political campaigns, including the 2000 campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley.

In countries such as Trinidad and Tobago; Venezuela, St. Vincent and the Grenadines; Antigua, Barbados and Aruba, Hesla tried to build bridges between feuding groups, and worked on political campaigns seeking to fight crime and corruption, create jobs and improve education, his friends said.

For more than three years, Hesla had worked in war-ravaged Kosovo, where he helped reform economic systems.

After taking time off to travel and write both a screenplay and a novel, he had set off for Afghanistan to work as a contractor for USAID in its "capacity building" program, helping government institutions, social organizations and universities with financial matters.

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"We mourn the loss of our fellow employee, Thor Hesla, " said Elizabeth Palmer of BearingPoint, Hesla's employer. "He was a loving son and brother and an important part of our BearingPoint family. His commitment to helping the people of Afghanistan was well known, and we will miss him terribly."

Following Thursday's services in Georgia, another is planned for Hesla in Washington D.C., which friends said was his "adopted home." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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