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Special Event

Air Force Captain Holds News Conference on U.S.-China Incident

Aired April 3, 2001 - 1:09 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And we're going to take you to now to Whidbey Air Force Base in Washington State where Captain Bill Marriott is conducting a news briefing related to the spy plane incident.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

CAPT. WILLIAM MARRIOTT, U.S. AIR FORCE: ... with regard to the families, VQ-1 is personally taking care of each and every primary and secondary next of kin, personally notifying them of the developments as they happen, and we've got a nice chain of information from CINCPACFLT all the way down to the individual family members, where as we receive official notice, each family member is notified, and we are handling their every needs.

That's the extent of my statement. I look forward to answering any questions. I would hope to keep it towards what we are doing with respect to the families, as a lot of the diplomatic efforts clearly are way above what we are able to accomplish here and would be on.

In any case, I'm prepared to talk on any issue you might want to bring up.

QUESTION: How many of those families are actually here? How many are in Okinawa or elsewhere?

MARRIOTT: They vary, sir. We had a meeting yesterday with all the locally available families, and there were approximately seven primary, next-of-kin families in the local area. The rest were outside of the local area.

QUESTION: Exactly what have you been telling those different families? I know you had a session with them yesterday. What have you personally been telling them?

MARRIOTT: Well, obviously, those families, their main concerns, to characterize it, the spouses that I spoke to were, of course, frightened. They were concerned for the well-being of their loved ones, and they were very, very angry.

And of course we didn't have all the answers that they wanted. Why can't they talk to their spouses? Why can't they see their spouses? We can assure them as of last contact we had with the crewmembers, they were all safe on deck. That's the best we can tell them. They want more than that, obviously, and we have diplomats working that.

But what we were able to tell them, we were able to assign each of them a personal point of contact from the squadron, who they got to meet yesterday, that would keep them informed. For those folks out of town, they were also assigned a personal point of contact from the squadron who keeps in touch with them on a regularly-scheduled basis and when developments occur, such as the meeting.

We also introduced them to the various services that are available from NAS-Whidbey Island, from Captain Salter, the CO. Those range from family service center counseling sessions, the chaplain corps, security for those folks that felt they were being harassed or were concerned about their well-being. We offer to bring them on base to provide them security for those folks who lived on base and to work with the local community as we could.

Obviously, there's been a great outpouring from the local community, led by the spouses, and that's been very, very heartwarming to see and they've taken them on board. But what they really wanted to know is the whens and whys and the things that we just, at this level, and I don't think any level of the government could answer at this.

QUESTION: How long have the families been apart from their loved ones that are over there now?

MARRIOTT: That crew of 24 arrived in Japan in the first week of March. They normally would be there until June sometime.

QUESTION: I don't know if you're able to speak on this, but what are your sentiments about -- I mean, these are some of your servicemen over there.

MARRIOTT: Well, they are. I'm very, very grateful for the diplomatic efforts that are occurring. Like everyone, we are very, very frustrated and concerned. We are not at war. Therefore, we don't understand why we don't have access to our crewmembers.

The prompt and safe return of them is our absolute number one priority, followed closely behind getting that aircraft ready to fly and getting it back. But we share the same sentiments as all of you do. We're concerned and we're angry and we'd like to see rapid conclusion.

QUESTION: The Chinese are demanding an apology. What is your reaction to that vis-a-vis the blame?

MARRIOTT: Based on what I've seen at the diplomatic levels, you know, I can say personally that I don't see where an apology was necessary. This was clearly an accident. As Admiral Blair has said, we've seen a very, very aggressive posture in the recent months, to the point that in December an official demarche was sent out to the Chinese and based on everything that we know at this time, it was purely an accident.

QUESTION: Captain, are you saying that based on the information you've gotten from the crew's activity at that time, that they did nothing out of the ordinary or there was no...

MARRIOTT: Yes, sir, that's what I am saying. Those of you who have seen the aircraft, and have seen the aircraft flying around here, realize it's something akin to a flying pig. It does not maneuver well. The air crew is trained to go straight and level. They don't practice formation flying. They're very uncomfortable in a formation flying environment. But I can guarantee you the pilot's main concern was maintaining straight and level, unaggressive posture, just staying on their track.

QUESTION: When they say it may have veered toward the fighter aircraft, that seems out of the realm of possibility to you?

MARRIOTT: It seems highly unlikely to me, sir, that they would do any maneuvering at all based on my experience in the P-3.

QUESTION: Captain, At what point would they no longer be considered detainees and would they be considered hostages?

MARRIOTT: That's a good question, ma'am, but that's not one for me to answer, I'm afraid. That's for the politicians. I don't know when the cut-off would be. Again, hopefully, based on the fact that our representatives are meeting with them, this will come to a rapid conclusion and we will be able to get those folks back safely.

I'll -- Kim, if you would tell me who needs to answer so I don't go in a circle.

QUESTION: What are you able to tell the families about the conditions in which the crew is being held?

MARRIOTT: Sir, very, very little, actually, because I don't even think our government knows the conditions. Our understanding, though, is that they are safe at this time. They were safe when we last communicated with them. They were being held, based on sources that I've seen and you've seen individually. We have no reason to believe that they are being harassed or treated as prisoners, but we just have no information on that, sir.

QUESTION: You said that the families were angry. Can you...

MARRIOTT: Well, imagine how you would feel if one of your loved ones was involved in a mid-air collision, did a heroic job of getting that aircraft on the ground. And something to keep in mind is we do not declare maydays. Our aircraft routinely fly with and engine shut down. That's not something out of the norm for us. We have four engines. We have that luxury.

So, losing an engine itself is not cause for declaring mayday. You only do that when you think the aircraft is going to -- is in extremist or is going to crash. So therefore, they survived this harrowing experience, put the aircraft on the ground. The families knew what it took to get it there, and now they don't have the capability of seeing their loved ones or hearing from their loved ones, and they are relying on second-, third-, fourth-hand information and they're very, very upset about that, as you can imagine. QUESTION: Based on the training that they get here on Whidbey Island, which you oversee, do you believe, then that they would have destroyed the very sensitive equipment before they had landed? And if so, would you call them heroes.

MARRIOTT: First of all, to answer in reverse order, absolutely. Like I said, they performed very heroically in a very, very trying situation that none of us know exactly what they went through. We will determine that upon the investigation once we get them safely back.

But based on the information we have, they did a fantastic job. Based on the training that they have received, and again, you have to receive, and again, you have to consider that this aircraft landed 20 minutes or so after the collision. They did not have a lot of time. I am sure that they did everything within their capabilities to carry out their responsibilities with respect to destroying any sensitive equipment that they were required to destroy.

But there is limited time, and you have to realize that the folks flying the aircraft were trying to keep the aircraft from crashing.

QUESTION: Could you tell us how they might do that?

MARRIOTT: I really can't go into specifics on that. Clearly, they would zeroize what they could and destroy what they could. That...

QUESTION: When you say the families were being harassed, what did you mean?

MARRIOTT: I didn't say the families were being harassed. What we did is we offered the opportunity to those families who felt that, perhaps, press might be hounding them. And that has not happened in the local area, by the way. It has happened nationally, where families felt they couldn't leave their house.

Captain Salter just offered the opportunity for those people to come on base, under our blanket -- security blanket, if you would, and just support the families. Our main focus here, again, is taking care of the families, making sure they're informed, making sure they're comfortable, making sure we give them all the information they can.

QUESTION: I know you take your job here seriously, and what the EP-3 does. I guess my concern is, I'd like to know your concerns about if any of the secrets were let out of this plane -- this plane had on it, and if flying into China in the future is going to be something that you're going to want to do? And I know those are broad questions, but can you help on that?

MARRIOTT: Again, it's too early to speculate. That aircraft is, as well as the crew, is considered to have sovereign immunity which means it is a part of the United States and it should not be boarded. I can't say with any reasonable accuracy whether it has been boarded.

I know what the president's position -- you all know what the position is, that the United States feels that it does -- it is sovereign immunity. It is our property. It should not be boarded. The crew should be rapidly returned.

I cant speak of any secrets on board. We don't routinely fly into China, although what the crew was doing was in accordance with international laws, in international airspace, more than 70 miles off the coast. And I would expect, I can't speak for my superiors, but I would expect we would continue to operate in accordance with international laws and international airspace.

WATERS: Captain William Marriott of the Whidbey Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island, Washington, talking about the crew being held on Hainan Island in China. Fourteen of those crew have families who live on Whidbey Island in Washington.

The captain had a main point to make today, and that was that the families are being taken care of by the Navy, anything from counseling to chaplains to security and other family services. About the mission itself, he said it was clearly an accident, there's no apology necessary, and that the crew did a heroic getting the plane down without it crashing, while at the same time destroying some of the equipment on board.

He wouldn't go into detail on that. But when a plane like the EP-3 makes an emergency landing in another city, the crew does more than buckle up and prepare for the worst. It erases computer software, smashes hardware. Sources tell CNN that procedure was followed, at least for a while, in the China situation.

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