OAK HARBOR, Wash. – After surviving a harrowing mid-air collision and emergency landing, the 24 men and women aboard a downed U.S. surveillance plane say they were subjected to hours of interrogation on a Chinese island.
Several crew members gave their most detailed account yet of the terror of the collision and their ordeal on the Chinese island of Hainan, where they were detained for 11 days by the Chinese government. They spoke as they enjoyed Easter Sunday with their friends and family at their home base, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state.
The Navy crew arrived there Saturday after being released by China the day before.
In the seconds following their April 1 collision with a Chinese fighter jet, crew members said they feared they would have to bail out with parachutes or crash land in the South China Sea. Many were certain they would die.
The fighter pilot buzzed the American EP-3E surveillance plane several times before clipping the turboprop's No. 1 propeller, knocking it out of operation and knocking off the plane's nose cone.
"After his first two runs at us, it got kind of surreal, like slow motion," Lt. Patrick Honeck told The New York Times in Monday's editions. He recalled that the Chinese pilot saluted on his first pass, and "mouthed something to us" on the second.
On the third approach, the Chinese fighter collided with the American plane, causing it to plummet from 22,500 feet. The fighter broke in half and crashed into the sea, presumably killing the pilot.
Asked during an interview with CNN whether he was angry with the Chinese pilot, mission commander Lt. Shane Osborn, said: "Definitely, I thought on the initial impact that he just killed us. And, obviously, there's 24 people on board ... I care about every single one of them very much, and I wasn't happy with the aggressive nature of the intercept."
"The first thing I thought of was, 'Oh, my God,'" said Aviation Machinist's Mate Second Class Wendy Westbrook, the navigator. "All I could see was blue water."
"I didn't think we were going to make it," Lt. j.g. Jeffrey Vignery told The Washington Post. "I said another prayer at that time, just in case I didn't get it right the first time."
He said that when Osborn ordered the crew to put on parachutes, he thought that "obviously some of us wouldn't have time to bail out."
"At the time I called for bailout, I never had a thought in my mind that I was going to be able to get out," Osborn told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America today.
"I was hoping I might be able to get the rest of my station out," he said. "But there was no way you could keep that plane up right and run in the back and jump out."
As the plane leveled out, Osborn canceled the bailout order and told the crew to prepare to ditch at sea. But Osborn regained enough control and Honeck studied maps to see where they might land. The plane's base at Okinawa, Japan, was too far, as was the Philippines.
They chose Hainan, even without permission from the Chinese to land.
As they headed for the island, the crew began destroying sensitive equipment. Crew members declined to discuss what they did or whether they completed the tasks.
After they landed, Osborn said, a small group of armed Chinese military, including an interpreter, approached.
"He told us not to move and don't do anything," Osborn told the Times. "I asked if I could use a phone to call the U.S. ambassador to let him know we were safe on deck, but he said they had already taken care of that. Then they told us to get off the plane, and they were pretty adamant about it. We dropped a ladder, and I got off first."
"It wasn't a time to make a stand. We were unarmed. They're armed. So they have the advantage," Osborn said Sunday on ABC-TV's This Week.
The Americans were taken to a barracks where they would spend the next 11 days.
"Their best barracks," Osborn said. "But by American standards, they were poor. Lots and lots of bugs and mosquitoes. But it was livable."
After two nights, they were moved to a nearby base lodge. Aside from meals, they were segregated from other residents.
Interrogations were often conducted in the middle of the night, sometimes for as long as five hours.
The food varied. "It was Chinese food, but definitely not Americanized," Vignery said. They were served fish heads "until they realized we weren't into fish heads."
Vignery said the crew was able to read a few English-language Chinese newspapers they were given, but during their captivity learned little about the tense diplomatic standoff surrounding their detention.
The crew diffused the tension by playing games among themselves and trying to keep a sense of humor during their downtime. They played cards, acted out skits based on television shows and even taught a guard the lyrics to the song Hotel California.
Honeck said the guard "wanted to know the lyrics to an American song he heard, Hotel California, by the Eagles."
"They got quite a few laughs," Honeck said of the skits. "We did a People's Court spoof, news like on Saturday Night Live and one of The Crocodile Hunter." He said guards who understood English laughed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.