ST. LOUIS — Three American college students detained for several days in Cairo as deadly protests swept Egypt have flown home to freedom, one describing an ordeal so terrifying he wasn't sure he would survive.
"I was not sure I was going to live," 19-year-old Georgetown University student Derrik Sweeney told The Associated Press by telephone moments after his relieved parents and other family members enveloped him in 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 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 they had arrested Sweeney and two others — Luke Gates, a 21-year-old Indiana University student from Bloomington, Ind., and Gregory Porter, a 19-year-old Drexel University student from Glenside, Pa. All three were studying at American University in Cairo, which is near Tahrir Square.
Protests have been going on in the square since Nov. 19 in anticipation of the landmark parliamentary elections due to start Monday. The crowd grew to more than 100,000 people Friday, and thousands were gathering Sunday for another massive demonstration calling for the nation's military leaders to hand power back to a civilian government.
Egyptian officials said they arrested the students on the roof of a university building and accused them of throwing firebombs at security forces fighting with protesters. But Sweeney said Saturday that he and the other Americans "never did anything to hurt anyone," weren't ever on the roof 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 dark 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 a lawyer. He said he denied the accusations during what he called proper questioning by Egyptian authorities.
A court ordered the students' release Thursday, and they took separate flights out of Cairo on Saturday. Porter and Gates arrived in their home states earlier Saturday, greeted by family members in emotional airport reunions.
Neither Gates nor Porter recounted details of their experience.
"I'm not going to take this as a negative experience. It's still a great country," said Gates, shortly after getting off a flight in Indianapolis. His parents wrapped their arms around him.
Porter was met by his parents and other relatives at Philadelphia International Airport. He took no questions, saying he was thankful for the help he and the others 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," he said.
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 was coming home before the close of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Matheson reported from Philadelphia. Associated Press photographer Michael Conroy contributed to this report from Indianapolis, and AP writers Bill Cormier in Atlanta and Andale Gross and Erin Gartner in Chicago also contributed.