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A member from the crew of the United States EP-3 aircraft involved in an accident with a Chinese F-8 aircraft arrives at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. He is greeted by Adm. Tom Fellin, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Marianas, on April 12, 2001. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Blair A. McClellan)
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U.S. Crew Members Return to Hawaii



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 planned weekend reunions with families and friends.

"We're definitely glad to be back," said Lt. Shane Osborne, 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," read a banner 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.

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.

The crew's long flight home ended a 12-day diplomatic standoff, with American officials resisting the Chinese demand for an apology went 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.

Cheers went up as Osborn stepped off the plane, followed by the 20 other men and three women, all in uniform. A line of military and civilian officials shook their hands.

There were also cheers during a stopover early Thursday at Andersen Air Force Base on the U.S. territory of Guam -- the crew's first contact with American soil. Some of the freed crew members leaned out bus windows to shake hands with onlookers before being driven away for a meal, showers and telephone calls to relatives.

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

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."

One of the chartered plane's pilots told NBC News that according to Osborn, the crew had considered jumping off the spy plane following the collision.

In Guam, the crew wore freshly pressed beige uniforms after emotional phone calls to relatives and an American meal of meat and potatoes, with optional rice.

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 since April 1.

"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 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.

"We hope that the U.S. side will adopt a serious attitude toward China's standpoint on the incident and handle it properly," Chinese President Jiang Zemin said while in Brazil on a 12-day tour of Latin America, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Chinese officials have denounced U.S. surveillance flights as a violation of national sovereignty, but U.S. officials responded that 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.

Despite their differences, the two countries are bound by hundreds of billions of dollars in trade. China wants U.S. support to join the World Trade Organization this year and to win its bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Officials on both sides said they want to make sure the incident doesn't damage long-term relations.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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