— Her red hair hidden beneath the traditional head scarf worn by Islamic women, her pants covered by a long skirt to blend in with the crowd outside her Cairo apartment, 76-year-old American Mary Thornberry crammed whatever she could — a few articles of clothing, some jewelry — into two small bags and joined her two rescuers as they led her through the shards of shattered glass and chunks of rock that littered her building, down six flights of dimly lit stairs.
On Friday night, after nearly 10 days holed up in her flat near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, 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. “I had a gentleman who came to assist me,” Thornberry told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Monday. “He also had gotten a friend to help him on the stairs to take my luggage down.”
It was, she said, a harrowing escape. “I have to say, I was a little on the scared side,” she admitted.
Trying to blend in
Friends who had reached Thornberry by telephone warned her to try to blend in with the protestors outside her apartment. “I was advised to wear my hijab,” she told Vieira, referring to the head scarf. “I had planned to just wear ... long pants, but a friend of mine said, ‘Don’t forget the long skirt also.’ ”
It wasn’t an impenetrable disguise, she knew. “If they looked closely at me, they would know that I am not Egyptian or Arabic. But just at a passing glance, this would be less apt to draw attention.”
She couldn’t carry much, she told Vieira, “a few clothes, some papers, some important papers, little pieces of jewelry.
“I did not have room to put the rolling pin in,” she added tartly, “so right now, all the belongings I have in the world are in my carry-on and what I call my quadruple-stuffed tote bag.”
Thornberry was whisked to Terminal 4 at the Cairo Airport, and from there she flew to Athens and then on to the United States. Her escape brought a happy ending to a saga that had played out for days on national television.
Trapped in her home
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 proved fruitless, 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 had been 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.
Also on Friday on TODAY, Holt reported 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. Thornberry told NBC of the unsettling racket she heard just yards from her window.
Thornberry had said on Thursday that she no longer had access to running water in her building, and had assembled an improvised arsenal to ward off rioters and looters. “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.
Her opinion of the State Department’s handling of her situation has changed slightly since her escape, she told Vieira on Monday: “When I finally managed to get to Terminal 4 at the Cairo Airport, the treatment was superlative. And it remained that way until I got to Greece. Actually I was met by the ambassador at the airport; he and the vice consul there took care of me and put me in a hotel ... so I have no unhappy feelings about my treatment there.”
But she does remain perplexed about why it took U.S. officials so long to get her the help she so desperately needed. “The consul general, so I’m told, attempted to call me by telephone, several times, and he could not find me,” Thornberry told Vieira pointedly. “Now people in God’s country and people in Cairo were able to get through on my land line, no problem,” she noted. So too were “news agencies from all over America.”
Despite her ordeal, Thornberry said, she plans to return to Cairo, and even plans to be buried there when the time comes. “I consider myself a Cairoan.”