WHIDBEY ISLAND NAVAL AIR STATION, Wash. (Reuters) – The 24 Navy crew members of a U.S. spy plane detained in China for 11 days arrived back at their home base to a hero’s welcome from thousands of relatives and supporters.
About 5,000 people, many waving “Welcome Home” posters, American flags and yellow ribbons, gathered at the Naval air base on Washington state’s Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, as the crew stepped off the military plane that flew them home after a debriefing in Hawaii.
Politicians and top military brass as well as relatives, friends and colleagues gathered Saturday on the tarmac outside a hangar bedecked with flags and balloons for the homecoming ceremony where a red carpet was rolled out for the crew.
The crew members — 21 men and three women — hugged their relatives, shook hands with dignitaries and then marched past throngs of admirers to a reception where politicians and high-ranking Navy officers hailed their “exemplary” behavior during their detention in China.
Home For Easter
Arriving home a day before the Christian Easter holiday, several of the crew members thanked God for their safe return home and described their fear as their EP-3 surveillance plane, badly damaged in a collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter, made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island.
The Americans calmly ran through a checklist, disabling the plane’s advanced electronic listening devices and destroying sensitive data before the Chinese boarded the plane.
At a press conference after the reception, the crew described their crippled aircraft’s descent and a not very comfortable stay in Chinese custody.
Asked what was the first thing the Chinese said to them, Lt. Patrick Honeck quipped: “It wasn’t in English.”
Bush eventually expressed regret and sorrow at the death of the Chinese fighter pilot whose plane struck the underside of the slow-moving U.S. spy plane. The U.S. crew said they had radioed repeatedly to request an emergency landing on Hainan.
Honeck described the shock he and his companions felt just after the collision, but said the group later pulled together and made the best of the situation. “Our treatment was fair. We were fed pretty well,” he said.
Rice And Coca-Cola
Other crew members said their rations were limited to rice and bread, with little meat or vegetables, though the Chinese did supply them with Coca-Cola.
Perhaps the most romantic moment of the day was provided by Cryptologic Technician Josef Edmunds, who introduced his fiancee, Sandra White of Fort Worth, Texas.
“I wanted to wait for the perfect moment, but sometimes the perfect moment never comes,” Edmunds said.
Pilot The Biggest Hero
Navy officials rejected criticism of Osborn’s quick decision to try to land, instead of bailing out or ditching the plane in the South China Sea to keep its ultra-secret eavesdropping equipment from falling into Chinese hands.
“Mr. Osborn made the right decision, and I credit him with saving the lives of his crew,” Holmes said.
Earlier Saturday Osborn rejected official Chinese claims that the U.S. plane caused the crash.
“I’ve never felt so proud to be an American in my whole life,” said Lt. Jeffery Vignery.