— Mary Thornberry was rescued Friday night from her apartment building near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where she had been holed up during the protests.
The 76-year-old retired American nurse, who had been fending off rioters with a rolling pin and a knife, was freed during a lull in the fighting. She spoke to TODAY’s Lester Holt over the phone from the Cairo airport, where she spent the night and is awaiting a flight out to the U.S. to reunite with her son.
She described the scene around her apartment as she was leaving.
“I got to the foyer and of course there were guys all over the floor sleeping and there were rocks and garbage and of course the streets were quite littered…” she said.
But when asked for details about exactly how she got out, Thornberry stayed mum.
“I would rather not go into that just in case some repercussions could come upon the party,” she said, adding that her trek to the airport was exhausting and left her feeling “totally debilitated.”
Thornberry was in contact with the U.S. embassy, and they had been working to expedite her trip to the U.S., but this came after what Thornberry’s son described as fruitless attempts to get help for his mother.
The feisty Texan, who moved to Cairo 15 years ago to indulge her love of ancient Egyptian history, found herself a prisoner in her own apartment as rioting continued. Demonstrators demanding the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are clashing with pro-Mubarak demonstrators, and while Thornberry had a dangerous bird's-eye view of history in the making, her worried son, Phillip Derrick, was working with NBC to try to get his mother to safety.
After several attempts to obtain help from the U.S. Embassy, Derrick contacted NBC Nightly News. As shown on TODAY Thursday, NBC’s Lester Holt attempted to reach Thornberry’s apartment when he was warned the unruly crowds were targeting Western journalists, and was forced to turn back.
On Friday, Holt reported on TODAY that the embassy asked NBC News for Thornberry’s location. The previous day, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was asked about her plight. “Where we can be helpful, we of course will dispatch direct assistance, or we will try to work with the host government where we can to help them,” he said.
On Friday, Holt also reported on TODAY that he had spoken to Derrick, who told him his mother “is getting help from an unspecified source,” though not directly from the U.S. government. She told NBC of the unsettling racket she heard just yards from her window.
“Sometimes I just hear the huge sound, and sometimes the chant will be ‘Mubarak, Mubarak, Mubarak,’ and sometimes it will be ‘ElBaradei, ElBaradei, ElBaradei,’ ” she said. (Mohamed ElBaradei is a leader of opposition to Mubarak.)
By Thursday, Thornberry said she no longer had access to running water in her building, and she kept her improvised arsenal to ward off rioters and looters at the ready.
“I have a sharp knife,” she said. “I have my walking cane, and I have my rolling pin, so that’s my armory.”
In an interview with TODAY Thursday, Thornberry told Meredith Vieira she was disappointed with government efforts to protect her and help her reach safety.
“I’m very displeased with the treatment I did not receive from the American Embassy,” she said in a tense telephone interview.
Derrick, a Seattle, Wash., high school teacher, said his mother tried to stand her ground in Cairo before he convinced her she needed to reach safety. In an interview with NBC, he said he feared for his mother.
“It’s been a surreal experience, this whole thing, especially with the Molotov cocktails being thrown off the roofs in her area, especially in her building,” he said.
Thornberry has since spoken to her son and his wife over the phone, and joked that she had to leave one important item behind — the rolling pin that served as her armor.
“My son told me to [bring it], but I did not have room in my little carryon,” she laughed.
She adds that despite what has happened, she plans to return to Egypt one day.
“Egypt is my home; Egypt has been good to me. I love Egypt and the Egyptian people,” she said. “I don’t know what I’ll come back to… I’m sure it will be all vandalized, things all over floor, broken, rumpled, dirty — but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”