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Senior Chief Nicholas Mellos, from Ypsilant, Mich., the senior enlisted member of the detained EP-3 crew, is greeted by the Commanding Officer of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One (VQ-1) Cmdr. Bernard Lessard, upon boarding a chartered aircraft for the first leg in their trip back to the United States. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. John A. Giles)
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Spy Crew Feared They Were 'Seconds from Death'



The crew of the US spy plane have blamed the Chinese fighter pilot for the collision which caused their plane to crash land, US officials said yesterday.

A day after the 24 crew members returned to a hero's welcome in the US, the most detailed account yet of the collision was released. This indicated that the Chinese pilot crashed into the spy plane's left engine after twice flying within three feet of the aircraft. The Chinese jet then struck the plane's nose, snapped in half and plunged into the sea.

The US spy plane began to plummet but the pilot brought it under some sort of control within minutes. Still in difficulties, he landed the plane at a military airfield on China's Hainan island.

As armed Chinese soldiers shouted through megaphones and waved their arms outside, the crew frantically destroyed classified material for 15 minutes, senior US diplomats said.

"They made it clear they wanted us off that aircraft," said Navy Lt Shane Osborn, the pilot of the EP-3E Aries II electronic surveillance plane, according to US diplomats.

In accounts garnered from relatives, who heard the first-hand reports from members of the crew when they reached Hawaii, The Los Angeles Times assembled a picture of a plane plunging and lurching out of control, a cabin in chaos, and crew members convinced that they were only seconds away from death. At one point, they rushed to strap on parachutes, believing that their only hope lay in baling out into the South China Sea.

But "the way it was spinning, there was no way they could get out," said James Coursen, the father of one of the Navy technicians on board after talking to his son. "It was chaos in there. They thought they were all going to die." With his plane hurtling towards the ground, the US pilot repeatedly sought permission to land in China, but could not have heard the answer even if one had been forthcoming.

"We were unable to hear any response that they did give due to holes in my pressure bulkhead causing air noise into the aircraft," Lt Osborn told the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, after his release. Lt Osborn has been widely praised as a hero for bringing the plane down safely against the odds.

An avalanche of hair-raising details emerged from a variety of sources as the 24 American crew members continued their debriefing in Hawaii. They are due back on the US mainland later today for a triumphal homecoming at their Whidbey Island base north of Seattle.

Some crew members told relatives that the pilot had physically "wrestled" the plane down, using brute strength in the absence of most other ways of controlling the plane. Mrs Diane Osborn, the pilot's mother, said that just landing the plane "took every ounce of strength he had".

Photos and video clips were also circulating, showing just how close the two Chinese fighters were approaching. One photo, apparently e-mailed to relatives by one of the crew, showed the plane piloted by Wang Wei within feet of the US plane. US accounts said that his plane was cut in two after colliding with the US plane's propeller. It was said that there was no question of the pilot's survival.

As President Jiang visited Cuba yesterday, the pilot's widow said that she supported Beijing's decision to release the American crew "because China and the world need peace". "Under the circumstances, letting the 24 crew leave China clearly demonstrates our government's broadmindedness and humanitarian spirit," she said.

(C) 2001 The Independent - London. via Bell&Howell Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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