About 7,000 people crowded onto the U.S. air base on Whidbey Island to greet the 24 crewmembers of the Navy reconnaissance plane who were detained in China.
A sea of people carrying flags and signs waited while the crewmembers, one by one, left the plane. They were greeted by Navy officials, Gov. Gary Locke, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and other dignitaries. After the official greeting, they were embraced family members and loved ones.
Flags and "Welcome Home" signs were hung among yellow ribbons all over Oak Harbor, the town of 21,000 just outside the Navy base. At Whidbey, red, white and blue balloons decorated the hangar, where a 40-by-60 foot American flag hung above a platform stage.
"This welcome home is overwhelming for all of us, but we do appreciate it. We appreciate it a lot," said Lt. Shane Osborn, the pilot of the reconnaissance plane.
Osborn thanked the crowd for their welcome and the country for its support throughout the time the crew was held.
"It just confirms what we all believe, that spirit is still strong in the United States of America," he said.
Mike Cecka was here to meet his son, Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class David Cecka.
"You can't help but think about how close it was to him not being there with the family," he said. "There were angels under the wings of that plane."
The crew's arrival in Whidbey was delayed for two days while the crew met with investigators in Hawaii to discuss the April 1 collision between a Chinese fighter Jet and the $80 million EP-3E plane they left behind. Before leaving for Whidbey, Osborn described the harrowing collision and emergency landing and stressed there was no need to apologize.
"I'm here to tell you we did it right," Osborn said. "No apology is necessary on our part."
He said the Chinese were polite and respectful during the 11 days they were held, but the crew suffered lack of sleep and hours of unpleasant interrogations.
"I tried to steal some sleep when I could," he said.
Osborn did not specify what the interrogations involved, saying only that the Chinese were mainly interested in the accident itself.
Osborn said the EP-3E, a 1950s-era patrol plane powered by four piston engines, was "straight, steady, holding altitude, heading away from Hainan Island, on autopilot, when the collision with the Chinese fighter jet occurred."
"The first thing I thought was, 'This guy just killed us,"' Osborn said.
Both the pilot and the fighter jet were lost. China on Saturday abandoned its search for pilot Wang Wei and hailed him a "revolutionary martyr."
Chinese officials also insisted that the U.S. spy plane caused Wang to crash by veering unexpectedly toward his aircraft.
"We have enough evidence to prove that it was the U.S. plane that violated flight rules by suddenly veering in a wide angle at the Chinese plane in normal flight, rammed into and damaged it, resulting in the loss of the Chinese pilot," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said in a statement.
Lt. j.g. Toby Proctor and Lt. j.g. Kevin Thomas, both navigators on P-3 reconnaissance planes stationed at Whidbey, said they couldn't wait to hear about the incident from their friends.
"I want to know how they felt when the whole thing was going on," Thomas said. "It had to be a scary moment."
"I'll ask them how they were treated," Proctor added. "I'm very concerned about that."
After the official welcome Saturday at Whidbey, the crew members will begin up to a month of time off. Navy officials want to make sure the crew is mentally ready to handle a return to duty.
Navy pilot Oscar Vela said he knows one of the crewmembers, Regina Kauffman.
"We'll give her some space. Let her get back to her life and her family. If she ever feels like talking about it, we'll listen."