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U.S. Crew Members to Come Home After Detention

Aired April 11, 2001 - 16:04   ET

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


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: The plane to freedom, now just two hours away. That is when a commercial jetliner from Guam is due to land on China's Hainan Island and pick up the 24 crew members of that Navy spy plane. After refueling on Hainan, which is expected to take about two hours, the plane will take off for Guam. The crew members will then be put on a military plane and flown to Hawaii, where they will be debriefed. After that, the crew will split up and return to their respective home bases for a long-waited reunion with families and friends.

The 11-day standoff ended today when China accepted a letter from the U.S. government expressing sorrow for the plane's collision with a Chinese fighter jet April first.

Secretary of State Colin Powell explained why there was no U.S. apology.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: There was nothing to apologize for. To apologize would have suggested that we had done something wrong and were accepting responsibility for having done something wrong. And we did not do anything wrong. And therefore, it was not possible to apologize.

With respect to the words that you use, regret, sorrow, very sorry, they were related to two specific things. One, the loss of the young Chinese pilot's life, and the death of anyone diminishes all in some way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHEN: China, in the meantime, claimed victory, saying it forced Washington to change from its initial, -- quoting here -- "rude and unreasonable attitude." And it made clear that it did not bow to U.S. pressure to free the Americans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHEN CI, CHINESE GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: The U.S. government has already said "very sorry" to the Chinese people. The Chinese government has other humanitarian considerations --- decided to allow the crew members to leave China after completing the necessary procedures. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CHEN: Now, there are some hours to go, yet. Preparations are well under way to debrief the crew in Hawaii. CNN's Martin Savidge is covering the latest developments there -- Marty.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Joie, the negotiations -- the negotiations breakthrough, actually, came in the very early morning hours in Washington, D.C. It was the middle of the night here in Hawaii. And it followed intensive days of negotiations, and a very intensive letter-writing campaign. It was a very pleased President Bush who was able to announce the news from the White House this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm pleased to be able to tell the American people that plans are under way to bring home our 24 American servicemen and women from Hainan Island. This morning, the Chinese government assured our American ambassador that the crew would leave promptly. We are working on arrangements to pick them up and to bring them home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAVIDGE: Now, the information we have concerning the itinerary of how the crew is going to get to Hawaii and what will happen when they get here. This is what we know: when they eventually do arrive at Hickam Air Force Base here, it is being described by the Navy as an intermediate stop.

The reason they use that specific terminology is they do not want to give the impression that the formal welcome home for the crew is going to take place here. Why? Because the family members aren't here, and they don't want the family members feeling left out of the important welcome-home process. So it's an intermediate stop.

Once the crew arrives here, they'll be met with a very simple ceremony and then whisked away for what were described as three days of very intensive debriefing. It is officially described by the Navy as an opportunity for the crew to fulfill their duty. Finish their job, so to speak, before they head home. And of course, this formal debrief is very important for the Navy to try to figure out exactly what happened.

From there, then the various crew members will go back to their home bases, most of them heading back to Whidbey Island in Washington, where they will be formally greeted -- Joie.

CHEN: Marty, we saw you shake your head a moment ago, and we understand that's because there's a little bit of a technical glitch between us and you. But let me see if we can get a question to you from our morning editorial meeting on-line.

The question is: "What is going to happen to the aircraft?" Do they know that now, Marty? SAVIDGE: Well, the aircraft, if you'll excuse the pun, is the one aspect that is still up in the air. And here's the situation with that. The Pentagon would very much like to have that airplane returned. In fact, that is something that they are continuing to stress. There was supposedly a meeting that is going to take place between U.S. officials and Chinese officials on the 18th of this month, and you can bet what happens to that airplane is at the top of the U.S. interest list.

Now, here's what some people have said could happen to that aircraft. If the Chinese allow access to it, then it's possible of three scenarios: One, that a team of U.S. personnel would be sent in and then the aircraft could be loaded on some sort of barge, and essentially floated away.

The other prospect is that a maintenance crew could be flown in and they could work to repair the aircraft, and then it would be flown out of China.

The other possibility is that, if that can't be done, they would literally take the aircraft apart. Slice off the wings, slice off the tail, and load it onboard a C-17 and fly it out of China.

But right now the Chinese have not fully committed to saying the plane can go. Only the crew -- Joie.

CHEN: CNN's Martin Savidge for us in Honolulu.

Some of the crew members, as Marty pointed out, in that spy plane, are based at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state, where a big homecoming, as you could well imagine, is now in the works.

CNN's Brian Cabell is at Whidbey Island -- Brian.

BRIAN CABELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good afternoon, Joie.

What we heard out of Whidbey Island this morning was a huge sigh of relief after an 11-day ordeal. As you might expect, this island is closely linked with the Naval air station here. There are 7,500 active-duty military personnel here, 2,100 civilians, as well as, of course, a lot of retirees throughout the island. So what happened over in China made a great deal of difference to the folks here, and the news to them was long overdue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's wonderful. It's about time. They should have been brought home a long time ago. He should have just said he was sorry, we were sorry, and let them bring him home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's great. I think it's wonderful that they're finally coming home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the U.S. did right. They didn't apologize, said they were very sorry. That's fine.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABELL: Normally, with overseas deployments, when they come back here, there's a big celebration. We talked to the mayor of Oak Harbor this morning. She said when these 24 come back, the celebration, as you might expect, will be bigger than ever.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PATRICIA COHEN, MAYOR, OAK HARBOR: You can imagine what it's like when you live through a family crisis, when that crisis comes to an end, what it's like. So the celebration will be great.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABELL: We're told there will be a parade. Exactly when that parade will be, we don't know, because we don't know exactly when those 24 men and women will return here.

Seven of the 24 have families immediately on the base or around the base. Those families have been kept under wraps by the Navy for the last several days. We expect in the next day or two, now that the men and women are likely to heading home shortly, that they will come out and be more forthcoming and actually hold press conferences. But so far we've heard very little from them, and the media have respected their privacy.

Joie, back to you.

CHEN: CNN'S Brian Cabell for us at Whidbey Island in Washington.

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