Former Fort Worth nurse makes it back to U.S. from Cairo

(Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 8, 2011.)

Mary Thornberry is back in the United States.

The 76-year-old former Fort Worth nurse, who spent more than a week keeping intruders out of her Cairo apartment as violent protests roiled outside, managed to leave the country after a stranger helped her get to the airport. She caught a flight to Athens and by Sunday she was on another flight that landed in New York.

"You're a sight for sore eyes," her son, Phil Derrick, said he told his mother when he saw her at the airport. "She said she was so happy to see us and she said, 'God bless America.' She was very, very pleased to be back."

Thornberry's plight -- unable to leave her apartment and seek safety in the midst of sometimes violent political protests on Egypt's streets -- drew national attention last week when Derrick contacted media outlets to try to help his mother.

On Monday, she was resting from jet lag and appearing on various TV shows in New York, including the Today show and MSNBC.

Leaving Cairo

Before she left Cairo, Thornberry believed she was the only tenant left in her apartment building near Tahrir Square, where many of the protests occurred. She used a rolling pin, a kitchen knife and her walking cane -- her "armory" -- to keep "thugs" out of her apartment.

Then around curfew on Thursday night, there seemed to be a lull in the violence.

That's when Hesham Aly, a Cairo man who works for the U.S. Embassy, went to Thornberry's apartment to help. Aly's fiancee in Arizona had heard about Thornberry's situation and asked him to help.

Thornberry wore a long skirt and hijab, the head covering worn by many Muslim women, to make her look like Aly's mother in case they were stopped and questioned, Derrick said.

By a flashlight, the two made it down six flights of stairs. They weaved their way through trash and people in the street, crossed several checkpoints set up by demonstrators -- and even more set up by officials -- until they reached an area where they could catch a cab to go to the airport.

"I wasn't worried," Aly told reporters after helping Thornberry. "I knew I could help her."

At the airport, U.S. embassy officials helped Thornberry get on an evacuation flight out of Egypt. Derrick temporarily lost track of his mother after she learned that there was a 12-hour wait for the flight and she went to a deserted area of the airport to sleep.

When she awoke, Thornberry and an embassy worker flew to Athens, where she caught a flight to New York.

Derrick, a former Grand Prairie resident who teaches high school social studies in Cle Elum, Wash., met her there.

Returning home

Thornberry and her husband, James Derrick, lived in Fort Worth for about 20 years. James Derrick, who has since died, worked on the crew of a KC-135 aerial refueling craft, and she was a nurse. She moved to Egypt about 15 years ago to study Egyptian history.

Francie Capuano of Fort Worth, who worked with Thornberry, said she was relieved to know her friend is safe.

"I was very distraught and distressed that someone as innocent and giving as she is ... was in a situation like that, especially at her age," said Capuano, who worked as a nurse with Thornberry in the 1980s. "Her situation makes you realize what liberties and freedoms we have in the United States, and that people have to fight for that in other countries."

Today, Thornberry and her son plan to fly to the Seattle area where Derrick lives. Derrick said that his mother's plans are "open," and that after some rest, she may visit relatives and friends.

Thornberry could only bring a small bag with some clothes, papers and jewelry. Left behind were the rest of her possessions, including her rolling pin.

"Everything else had to be left behind, and she said she knows it will be gone," Derrick said.

Thornberry hasn't ruled out returning to Egypt, where she bought a burial plot.

"Egypt is my home; Egypt has been good to me. I love Egypt and the Egyptian people," she said on the Today show Monday.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610