OAK HARBOR, Wash. – Sunday marked a particularly joyous Easter on Whidbey Island, Wash., where the crew members of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane that was detained in China spent their first full day reunited with their families.
The crew members -- 21 men and three women known as the Whidbey 24 -- were given a hero's welcome at congregations throughout the island of 21,000 residents located outside the Navy base 50 miles north of Seattle.
"We are most of all happy because of the return of the 24 crew members," the Rev. John O'Leary told the crowd at St. Augustine Catholic Church, where hundreds of parishoners turned out for Easter mass on the bright spring morning.
"God has cared for them, watched over them. We are particularly happy because Lt. Richard Payne is with us again," O'Leary said.
Payne shook hands with well-wishers as he stood quietly along the wall with his mother, Brenda Payne, and other family members. "We're just glad he's home," Brenda Payne said.
"The whole Easter season is just a time for rejoicing," said lay Eucharistic minister Jane Ritter. "When they come home to be with their families, it's even more so."
On Saturday, a military passenger jet brought the 21 men and three women back to their base at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station after 11 days on Hainan island, where their surveillance plane was forced to land after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet. They were released after diplomatic talks.
In the Family Bible Church parking lot, a message written in soap on a van's windows read "24 answered prayers."
"The events of the last two weeks have been miracles," declared Pastor Ron Willis at the church, where Lt. j.g. Jeffery Vignery, Lt. Patrick Honeck and their families celebrated Easter. "They experienced victory over physical death. God can and does intervene."
Ron and Judy Vignery, parents of the crew member, could not remember a happier holiday.
"All the parents of the world should just think about what it would be like if it was their son. All they've got to do is think about their own son or daughter, and they'll know how we feel," Ron Vignery said as his son exchanged hugs with church friends. "Our son is our hero."
A big sign outside Southern Baptist Church proclaimed, "Praise God They're Back." Everyone at the ladies' Bible study group, which met before Easter services, talked about the welcome-home celebration that drew 7,000 people to a base hangar.
"To have them home for Easter was incredible,'" said Sharon Cohen, a member whose husband is retired from the military.
At First United Methodist Church, where the church bell was rung 24 times every day last week for the 24 crew members, the Rev. David Lura gave thanks for their return.
Sunday also marked the first day of up to a month of time off for the crew members. Navy officials want to make sure they are mentally ready to handle a return to duty.
But Lt. Shane Osborn, the pilot who safely landed the crippled EP-3E surveillance plane, told ABC News he just wanted to "take a few days off, go visit home, and get back up flying."
The crew had left Honolulu after 26 hours of meetings with investigators about the April 1 collision and the $80 million EP-3E plane they left behind on Hainan.
Chinese officials insisted that the U.S. spy plane caused Wang Wei to crash by veering unexpectedly toward his aircraft. But a top Chinese trade official urged Congress over the weekend against linking the incident with an expected vote on China's trade relations with the United States.
"China doesn't wish to fight a trade war with any country," Gao Yan was quoted by the government-run China News Service.
Several lawmakers said the recent standoff is likely to have lasting effects on everything from the arms deal to trade relations.
"This is not some incident that will pass in the night, this will cause a fundamental change in our relations with China," Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said on NBC's Meet the Press. "There will be retribution."