12 days later, American crew returns to U.S.

Thursday, April 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HONOLULU (AP) _ Leaving their damaged spy plane on a Chinese island, 24 U.S. crew members landed in Hawaii on Thursday to cheers and to face two long days of debriefing before weekend reunions with families and friends.

``We're definitely glad to be back,'' said Lt. Shane Osborn, spy mission commander, in a short statement to officials and military families.

He said all crew members were healthy and eager to get on with the last stage in their mission: 26 hours of debriefings.

``On behalf of Combat Reconnaissance Crew 1, I'd like to thank you once again, and God bless America,'' he said, holding an American flag.

``A proud Navy day,'' a banner proclaimed, welcoming the crew freed 12 days after their surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet over the South China Sea. Hawaii's four members of Congress and other officials welcomed the crew, along with local military families, after an overnight flight from Guam aboard a military transport jet.

``We're all very proud of you and the way you conducted yourselves this past two weeks,'' said Adm. Thomas Fargo, the Pacific Fleet commander. ``Welcome back and well done.''

He read a letter from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said: ``You put your lives at risk so the citizens of a grateful nations can live their lives in peace and freedom.''

In a telephone call to his mother, Osborn said the crew struggled to land the crippled Navy EP-3E surveillance plane safely after the two aircraft collided.

``He said it took every bit of strength that he had. All the crew helped,'' Diane Osborn of Norfolk, Neb., told MSNBC. ``He was well trained by the Navy and I thank God he gave him the strength to get it down.''

Pierre Frenay, a pilot on the chartered plane that flew the 24 to Guam, told NBC News that Osborn told him the crew had considered bailing out of their plane following the collision.

The crew faced 10 a.m.-10 p.m. sessions to go over their ordeal, with an additional 14 hours on Friday. They were to return to their home base and a warmer welcoming celebration planned for Saturday at Whidbey Island, Wash., their home base.

Family members were waiting on the mainland, but a friend of freed crew member Nick Mellos said seeing his fellow servicemen brought ``a tremendous rush of relief.'' Lt. Bill Ellis shook hands with Mellos as the freed officer boarded a bus taking the crew to hotel-like accommodations at nearby Pearl Harbor.

The crew experienced two sunrises Thursday _ one in captivity on a Chinese island and one in Hawaii. Their homeward flight from Guam brought them across the International Dateline.

The long journey home ended the diplomatic standoff, with America's official reaction to the Chinese demands for an apology going from expressions of ``regret'' to the word ``sorry'' during the weekend. Finally, a letter delivered to Chinese officials Wednesday said the United States was ``very sorry'' for the Chinese pilot's death and for the U.S. plane's landing in China without permission.

The crew's first contact with American soil was at Andersen Air Force Base on the U.S. territory of Guam. Some of the freed crew members leaned out bus windows to shake hands with onlookers. They made emotional phone calls to relatives and were given an American meal of meat and potatoes, with optional rice.

``It gave me goosebumps. I just wanted to say, 'Welcome back. You guys are heroes,''' Guam Gov. Carl Gutierrez said.

A few hours later, the crew's C-17 Globemaster ``Spirit of Bob Hope'' left for Honolulu.

Across the United States, relieved relatives and friends watched television broadcasts showing the crew leaving China and arriving in Guam.

Mary Mercado, wife of aviation electronics technician Ramon Mercado, said her ``heart was racing'' as the plane took off from China's Hainan Island, where the 24 Americans had been detained.

``I've had butterflies in my stomach since this morning,'' she said from Oak Harbor, Wash. ``We're just happy they're alive and coming home safely.''

The crew had been held since the April 1 collision, which shattered the tail fin of the Chinese fighter and sent it spiraling out of control, Chinese state media said. The pilot, Wang Wei, is missing and presumed dead.

The letter delivered Wednesday to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and later released by the White House said Washington is ``very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance.''

``Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss,'' the letter said.

It also expressed appreciation for ``China's efforts to see to the well-being'' of the U.S. crew.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said Thursday that Beijing still held the United States entirely responsible for the collision and was keeping the spy plane for investigation. The two sides agreed to resume talks on the plane next Wednesday.

Although Chinese officials have denounced U.S. surveillance flights as a violation of national sovereignty, U.S. officials said there were no plans to end the practice of flying spy planes in international airspace near China.

American officials assume Chinese experts have stripped the craft of its sophisticated surveillance equipment. Satellite photos showed trucks lined up next to the plane on the tarmac of the Chinese air base in Lingshui. The Pentagon has said the crew destroyed as much of the top-secret codes and intelligence as they could before the Chinese came aboard.

The Cold War-style dispute inflamed tensions over an expected U.S. decision this month on arms sales to Taiwan, which China claims as its territory; the detention in China of several U.S.-based scholars; and the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, for which American officials apologized unconditionally.

The US Secretary of Defense sent a welcome letter to the crew as a "welcome back". To read it, click here. (Adobe Acrobat required)