Jefferson City student back in Missouri, describes ordeal

Derrik Sweeney, 19, of Jefferson City, Mo., smiles as he walks with his mother, Joy Sweeney, center, and sister Ashley Sweeney after arriving at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, in St. Louis. Derrik Sweeney and two other American students were arrested on the roof of a university building near Tahrir Square in Cairo last Sunday, accused of throwing firebombs at security forces fighting with protesters. On Thursday, a court ordered the three to be released.

Derrik Sweeney, 19, of Jefferson City, Mo., smiles as he walks with his mother, Joy Sweeney, center, and sister Ashley Sweeney after arriving at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, in St. Louis. Derrik Sweeney and two other American students were arrested on the roof of a university building near Tahrir Square in Cairo last Sunday, accused of throwing firebombs at security forces fighting with protesters. On Thursday, a court ordered the three to be released. Photo by The Associated Press.

This revision posted at 5:57 a.m., expanding earlier updates.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — 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 student Derrik Sweeney of Jefferson City 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.

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.

photo

Derrik Sweeney, center, gets hugs from his father Kevin Sweeney, left, and sister Ashley, right, after Derrik arrived at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, in St. Louis.

Egyptian authorities later announced that they had arrested 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 had accused the young men of throwing firebombs at Egyptian security forces who were clashing with the protesters. 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.

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 lay 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," 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. 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, his mother and 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.

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

Neither Gates nor 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 Gates, his parents wrapping their arms around him, shortly after getting off a flight in Indianapolis.

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

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 U.S.

"I'm just so thankful to be back, to be in Philadelphia right now," said 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.

Earlier coverage, posted at 12:20 a.m. Sunday:

ST. LOUIS (AP) — All three American college students arrested during protests in Cairo arrived back in the U.S. on Saturday, three days after an Egyptian court ordered their release.

The mother of one of the students, 19-year-old Derrik Sweeney, was anxiously awaiting her son's arrival late Saturday night at St. Louis' international airport. She said she spoke with him briefly when he landed in Washington, D.C.

"He still hasn't processed what a big deal this is," Joy Sweeney told The Associated Press from the airport. "He has been in isolation. He doesn't have a clue as to what's going on."

Sweeney, 19-year-old Gregory Porter and 21-year-old Luke Gates were arrested on the roof of a university building near Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square last Sunday. Officials accused the young men of throwing firebombs at security forces fighting with protesters.

The protests have been ongoing since Nov. 19, in anticipation of the landmark parliamentary elections in Egypt due to start Monday. On Friday, the crowd grew to more than 100,000 people.

Porter was greeted by his parents and other relatives earlier Saturday evening when he landed at Philadelphia International Airport. Porter took no questions, but said 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 U.S.

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

Gates also arrived in the U.S. late Saturday and was expected back home in Indiana soon, Indiana University spokesman Mark Land said. Gates attends the university, and his parents have declined to talk with the media. Land said he spoke with Gates' father, who said his son was in good spirits.

"He said he was doing very well and he was very excited to be on his way home," Land said. He added that Gates' parents are "really hopeful they can spend a little time with him without having to answer a lot of questions" in the media spotlight.

All three left the Egyptian capital Saturday morning on separate connecting flights to Frankfurt, Germany, an airport official in Cairo said. The three were studying at American University in Cairo.

Joy Sweeney said staff at the school packed her son's bags because he wasn't allowed to return to his dorm room. Waiting for her son had been grueling, she said, but she was grateful he would be home before the holiday weekend was over.

She said she was trying not to dwell on the events of the last week and was ecstatic that her son, a student at Georgetown University in Washington, was coming home. The family is from Jefferson City, Mo., about 130 miles west of St. Louis.

Earlier in the week, she talked about how she put a Thanksgiving celebration on hold because the idea seemed "absolutely irrelevant" while her son still was being held.

"It's been an emotional rollercoaster. I mean, I don't know how to describe it other than that," she said Saturday night. "But I never looked at the worst-case scenario."

Online:

Video report: Sweeney arrives at St. Louis airport


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.

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