The 24 crew members of the disabled American surveillance plane held in China came home this weekend.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the return of the 24 crew members of the American spy plane, who were held by the Chinese for 11 days. They came back to their base at Whidbey Island, Washington this weekend. Jack Hamann of KCTS-Seattle reports. (Cheers and applause)
JACK HAMANN: It had been 14 days since their crippled surveillance plane made an emergency landing at a Chinese airfield. On Saturday, 24 crewmembers walked into the embrace of their wives, children, siblings and parents. (Cheers and applause)
LIEUTENANT J.G. JEFFREY VIGNERY: I don't think any of us had any idea what kind of welcoming we would receive from the United States. And I think all of us can't thank you enough for all of this. And I just want to say "thank you."
JACK HAMANN: Safe on the ground at their home base at Whidbey Island Naval air station, crewmembers were permitted to share many of the details of their ordeal. The pilot and mission commander, Lt. Shane Osborn, recounted on ABC's "This Week" the difficult landing onto an airfield on Hainan Island.
LIEUTENANT SHANE OSBORN: We rolled almost inverted -- about 130 degrees angle of bank and in a steep dive, uncontrolled, and my number one engine was torn apart, the propeller was torn apart, and I also lost my nose cone, which also put holes in my pressure bulk head, so there was quite a bit of air noise. My air speed indication, I lost that, and I also had a hole in my aileron. So there was a question for quite a while of whether or not we would be able to live through this. And once I got the plane wings level about 7,500 feet later, I called for a bail-out and I figured at least some of the people in back would be able to get out of this. About 10,000 feet or so, I talked with my other pilot, Lieutenant Honeck and the senior engineer, senior chief mellows, and we decided that we might be able to land it. But I went ahead and I went through the ditching checklist because I thought I might have to put it in the water, because I didn't know if it was going to hold together or not, because I was worried about that propeller flying off.
JACK HAMANN: Lieutenant Patrick Honeck, the co-pilot and second in command, thought his damaged aircraft would plunge into the South China Sea.
LIEUTENANT PATRICK HONECK: I think everybody on the crew felt that way initially. There was definitely a moment in time where, you know, we were all just kind of in shock and didn't believe what was going on. But once we were able to put that behind us and fall back on our training, pretty much just made it happen. Didn't really have time to think too much about "what if" anymore.
PETTY OFFICER JEREMY CRANDALL: All I can say is it's scary. I said at the time I thought, "hey, I'm 20 years old. I've had a good life," you know. I love my family. I said my prayers. But we had a we had a great pilot. Lt. Osborn saved all of our lives. All the crew members owe our lives to lt. Osborn. He pulled it out, and he saved us.
JACK HAMANN: One of the aircraft's four propellers was damaged and the plane became dangerously unstable. Lt. J.G. Regina Kauffman, the navigator, decided that the plane should try to land on Hainan Island.
LIEUTENANT J.G. REGINA KAUFFMAN: It was the closest airfield, and I just naturally headed us in that direction once pilot started getting the plane under control.
REPORTER: Were you surprised to see how much damage there was to the aircraft when you got out?
LIEUTENANT J.G. REGINA KAUFFMAN: When I got out, I was.
JACK HAMANN: Some crewmembers endured long interrogations, lasting up to five hours. They were often asked to apologize for their collision with a Chinese fighter jet.
REPORTER: How did you reply when they asked you to apologize?
LIEUTENANT J.G. RICHARD PAYNE: We stuck with the... By the time they had gotten around to requesting apologies, we had spoken with General Sealock, the defense attaché, and they had told us what President Bush's response had been, and we used his same words.
JACK HAMANN: The entire crew was reported in good health, with few complaints about the spartan food and accommodations while in Chinese custody.
PETTY OFFICER JEREMY CRANDALL: We talked to each other, we played cards, stuff like that, anything to keep up the spirits, you know, and we never let anybody get down. If they started getting a little down, we just picked them back up and we moved on.
JACK HAMANN: Within hours of his release last week, cyrptologic technician Josef Edmunds had just one thing in mind.
PETTY OFFICER JOSEF EDMUNDS: I had actually been thinking about proposing for quite a while. I decided I want to wait for the perfect moment. Well, still... Sometimes the perfect moment doesn't come. When we hit the deck, I turned to a very, very close friend of mine, somebody who helped me through this whole ordeal, and I said, "that's it. I'm getting married as soon as I get back." I called her from Guam. I guess I was captured on TV.
JACK HAMANN: On Sunday, several crew members returned to a normal routine, one that included, for some, Easter Sunday worship. Beginning today, yellow ribbons and balloons throughout town will be taken down, and the 24 crewmembers will each begin a 30-day vacation with their families.