- Associated Press - Sunday, November 27, 2011

ST. LOUIS — Three American college students detained for several harrowing days in Egypt before obtaining their release as deadly protests swept Cairo have flown home to freedom, one describing an ordeal so terrifying he wasn’t sure he would survive it.

“I was not sure I was going to live,” 19-year-old college studentDerrik Sweeney told the Associated Press by telephone moments after his relieved parents, other relatives and dozens of supporters swamped him with hugs as he got off a flight in St. Louis.

Mr. Sweeney, the last of the three to arrive late Saturday, recounted how tear gas clouded Cairo’s streets and he heard the rumbling of armored vehicles and what sounded like shots being fired just before his arrest a week earlier. Suddenly, the drama involving thousands of demonstrators in the streets had become intensely personal.

Egyptian authorities later announced that they had arrested Mr. Sweeney and two others studying abroad — 19-year-old Gregory Porter and 21-year-old Luke Gates — on the rooftop of a university building near Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square and a focal point of protests raging in that capital.

Officials accused the young men of throwing firebombs at Egyptian security forces who were clashing with the protesters. Mr. Sweeney said Saturday that he and the other Americans “never did anything to hurt anyone,” never were on the rooftop and never handled or threw explosives.

Mr. Sweeney said he and the others were told by a group the night of their arrest that they would be led “to a safe place” amid the chaos engulfing the nearby square. Next, he said, they found themselves being taken into custody, hit and forced to lie for about six hours in a near-fetal position in the darkness with their hands behind their backs.

The worst, he said, was when they were threatened with guns.

“They said if we moved at all, even an inch, they would shoot us. They were behind us with guns,” Mr. Sweeney said in the brief interview.

That night in detention — “probably the scariest night of my life ever” — gave way to much better treatment in ensuing days, he said. Mr. Sweeney didn’t elaborate on who he believed was holding him the opening night, but he called the subsequent treatment humane.

“There was really marked treatment between the first night and the next three nights or however long it was. The first night, it was kind of rough. They were hitting us, they were saying they were going to shoot us, and they were putting us in really uncomfortable positions. But after that first night, we were treated in a just manner … we were given food when we needed, and it was OK.”

He also said he was then able to speak with a U.S. consular official and his mother and to obtain legal counsel. He also said he denied the accusations during what he called proper questioning by Egyptian authorities. The three were studying at American University in Cairo.

A court ordered the students‘ release Thursday, and they took separate connecting flights out of Cairo via Germany on Saturday, a day of fresh clashes between Egyptian security forces and protesters. The demonstrators are demanding Egypt‘s military step down ahead of parliamentary elections due to start Monday.

Mr. Porter and Mr. Gates were first to arrive back in their home states late Saturday, greeted by family members in emotional airport reunions.

Neither Mr. Gates nor Mr. Porter recounted any details of the past week in Egypt, where protests erupted Nov. 19 and have continued for days amid sporadic scenes of police firing tear gas and using armored vehicles to chase rock-throwing protesters. Authorities said more than 40 people have died in the unrest.

“I’m not going to take this as a negative experience. It’s still a great country,” said Mr. Gates, his parents wrapping their arms around him shortly after he got off a flight in Indianapolis.

In another scene played out at the Philadelphia International Airport, Mr. Porter was met by his parents and other relatives earlier Saturday evening after he landed.

Mr. Porter took no questions, saying he was thankful for the help he and the other American students received from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, administrators at the university they were attending, and attorneys in Egypt and the United States.

“I’m just so thankful to be back, to be in Philadelphia right now,” said Mr. Porter, who is from nearby Glenside, Pa., and attends Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Joy Sweeney said waiting for her son had been grueling.

“He still hasn’t processed what a big deal this is,” she told the AP before his arrival in St. Louis , about 130 miles east of their home in Jefferson City, Mo.

She said she was trying not to dwell on the events and was just ecstatic that her son, a student at Georgetown University in Washington, was coming home before the close of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Kathy Matheson reported from Philadelphia. Associated Press photographer Michael Conroy contributed to this report from Indianapolis, and AP writers Bill Cormier in Atlanta, Maggie Michael in Cairo, Andale Gross and Erin Gartner in Chicago, Sandy Kozel in Washington, Rick Callahan in Indianapolis and Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia also contributed.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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