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Sailors at the Naval Air Station, Whidbey Island, Wash., sign a welcome-home banner to support their 24 shipmates from Fleet Air Reconnaisance Squadron One (VQ-1) who are returning home from China. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Mike Larson.
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Families, Officials Cheer News That Navy Crew Is Headed Home

Wearing her "NAVY'' sweat shirt, Cheryl Bensing scanned the television broadcast for a glimpse of her son as the 24 crew members of a U.S spy plane emerged one by one from their charter flight to Guam.

"I kind of thought I saw him, but I wasn't sure,'' Bensing, of Taylorsville, Utah, said about her 32-year-old son Richard.

Even so, she was relieved to see the crew back on American soil after having been detained for 12 days in China. A chartered Continental Airlines Boeing 737 flew the crew to the U.S. territory of Guam on Thursday.

Tom Crandall of Loves Park, Ill., said he received a call from his son, Navy Seaman Jeremy Crandall, shortly after the plane landed.

"He said he was OK. He said they were treated well over there. He couldn't say a lot because he hadn't been debriefed yet,'' Crandall said early Thursday from his home about 90 miles north of Chicago. "He sounded kind of tired. But he was upbeat and he was happy about getting back to the states.''

Five hours after landing in Guam, the crew boarded a military C-17 passenger-cargo plane for a same-day sunrise arrival in Hawaii.

The crew's U.S. surveillance plane had been forced to make an emergency landing on China's Hainan island after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet April 1. China released the crew Thursday after President Bush sent a letter saying the United States is "very sorry'' for the Navy surveillance plane's unauthorized landing and the death of a Chinese pilot.

"There's been good news, bad news, heartening news, letdowns. But this morning was the best news of all of it,'' Clem Cecka, grandfather of crewman David Cecka, told the Daily News of Los Angeles.

"I knew he'd come home,'' his grandmother, Ione Cecka, told the newspaper. "It was just a question of when.''

At Whidbey Island, about 50 miles north of Seattle, where the crew is stationed as part of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One, residents prepared to celebrate their arrival back on the island Saturday.

Rear Adm. Michael Holmes, commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Force Pacific, said the crew was expected to be back on Whidbey Island for a homecoming celebration Saturday. Thousands are expected at the base, and the gates will be opened to allow the public to attend, he said.

"I think it's important to understand that in the minds of the crew members, their mission is not complete as of yet,'' Holmes said. "The plan is to bring them back to Hawaii so they can commence the debriefing process and complete the mission. We want to reunite the family members as quickly as we can.''

After the celebration, the crew members will be on 30-day leave, Holmes said.

Glen Julius stood atop a ladder late Wednesday, taking down a large plastic yellow sign that had been hanging above the entrance to Kmart and reading: "Send our service men back.'' He said the sign would be repainted with "Welcome Home.''

"It's a very good day,'' the retired the Navy man said.

Pastor David Lura had been holding a daily prayer service for the crew at the First United Methodist Church, ringing the church bell 24 times each day, once for each crew member. When the crew arrives on Whidbey Island he promised to ring it 124 times.

Mary Mercado, wife of aviation electronics technician Ramon Mercado, said her "heart was racing'' as she watched a televised broadcast of the plane carrying the crew finally leaving China.

"We never imagined it would be an early reunion,'' Mercado said. "We're just happy they're alive and coming home safely.''

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