Ex-Fort Worth woman who escaped Egypt violence last year has returned to Cairo

Mary Thornberry is back in Egypt.

Less than a year after being featured on national news for defending herself and her Cairo apartment with her "armory" of a rolling pin and kitchen knife during last year's violent political protests, Thornberry -- a 77-year-old former Fort Worth woman -- has returned to the place her heart calls home.

"She went back ... after visiting my sister, aunts and several friends on the West Coast," said her son, Phil Derrick, a former Grand Prairie resident who teaches high school in Cle Elum, Wash. "Her apartment building had been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood during the riots and the owner only got it back in the fall.

"She went despite my misgivings, but she was determined not to be run out of the place."

Thornberry, who could not be reached in Egypt for comment, and her husband, James Derrick, lived in Fort Worth for about 20 years. James, who has since died, worked on the crew of a KC-135 aerial refueling craft, and Mary was a nurse. She moved to Egypt about 15 years ago to study ancient Egyptian history.

Then in February 2011, violent political protests raged in Egypt's streets between anti- and pro-government demonstrators over the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. In the weeks leading up to his forced resignation, political strife and violence rocked the country.

Thornberry finally agreed to temporarily leave Egypt for her own safety, but she was trapped inside her apartment building overlooking Tahrir Square as activists took over the building and protesters climbed it to throw Molotov cocktails into the crowd.

Believing herself to be the only tenant left in the building, Thornberry stood guard at her front door and prevented people from entering by using her "armory" to hit the hands reaching in to unlock her door, the glass of which had been broken.

"I had a knife, a nice sharp knife so I would make jabbing motions to them and there were times ... that I would make unladylike comments," Thornberry told national media last year. "A friend of mine on the phone suggested that I boil a kettle of hot water and so, every so often, I would threaten with a kettle of hot water.

"I also had my walking cane and my rolling pin, ... so I tell everyone that's my armory."

But what she really wanted was a way out.

Her son became so worried that he contacted national news media outlets to draw attention to his mother's plight.

After several days, an Egyptian man who works for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo helped Thornberry -- who wore a long skirt and hijab, the headscarf worn by many Muslim women, to make her look like his mother in case they were stopped -- reach the airport. U.S. Embassy officials helped her get on an evacuation flight out of Egypt.

She finally made her way to her son's home in Washington state, staying with him, resting, and visiting relatives and friends.

But Thornberry knew she would eventually return to Egypt.

"Egypt is my home; Egypt has been good to me," she told the media last year. "I love Egypt and the Egyptian people."

Since the toppling of Mubarak's regime, the protests and violence have calmed.

Leaders there scheduled the country's first free presidential election in May. But the military still controls much of the country, jobs are scarce, protests continue, and violence and security issues -- such as the recent bombing of a gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan -- remain.

But Thornberry was determined to return.

"I was mildly surprised that this return happened, but not shocked," Derrick said. "She dearly loves the place," and ancient Egyptian collections are nearby.

"Since she had already bought a burial plot prior to 2011, I knew the lure was still powerful," he said.

Protests and demonstrations are still held outside her apartment building. But she now tries to visit friends on the outskirts of Cairo when they occur, her son said.

"She does not want to get trapped again, obviously," Derrick said. "Despite the present problems, I am guardedly optimistic, as long as she can keep avoiding getting swept up in demonstrations."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram