The crew of a Navy surveillance plane who were detained for 11 days in China arrived in Hawaii to much fanfare and celebration Thursday, as the crowd at Hickam Air Force Base greeted the crew with a heroes' welcome.
People gathered on the tarmac cheered, clapped and cried as the 24 crew members emerged just after sunrise from a U.S. Air Force C-17 called "The Spirit of Bob Hope," which had flown them, after a brief stopover in Guam, from Hainan Island, where they had been held, to Hawaii.
As a military band played "America the Beautiful," the 21 men and three women, clad in identical olive-drab flight suits, stepped single-file out of the plane and made their way down a receiving line of military and government officials, shaking hands and saluting.
"We are all very proud of you, for the way you've conducted yourself these past two weeks," said Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the Pacific Fleet, during the brief homecoming ceremony, "and for the high spirit of professionalism you demonstrate in the service of your country every day. We are lucky to have men and women like you protecting the interests of our nation."
"Welcome back and well done," Fargo told the crew, whom he called "courageous."
Fargo then read a brief statement welcoming the crew home from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In the letter, Rumsfeld said the United States "could not have had better representatives of the ideals we value."
Fargo's comments were followed by a very brief statement by Lt. Shane Osborn, the pilot of the surveillance plane who is credited with saving the lives of the crew by making the emergency landing on Hainan. Osborn thanked the public for its support.
"We need to be debriefed on the situation so that we can be back with our families on Easter," Osborn said.
In a telephone call to his mother, Osborn said the crew struggled to land the crippled Navy EP-3E surveillance plane safely after the two aircraft collided.
"He said it took every bit of strength that he had. All the crew helped," Diane Osborn of Norfolk, Neb., told MSNBC. "He was well trained by the Navy and I thank God he gave him the strength to get it down."
Pierre Frenay, a pilot on the chartered plane that flew the 24 to Guam, told NBC News that Osborn told him the crew had considered bailing out of their plane following the collision.
The crew was taken to Pearl Harbor Air Force Base, where they began debriefing sessions scheduled in shifts over a 12-hour period. A homecoming celebration is planned for Saturday afternoon on Whidbey Island, Wash., the crew's home base.
They will be reunited with their families in time for Easter Sunday, Fargo said.
President Bush watched the crew arrive home on television at the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney.
"They did their duty with honor and with great professionalism," he said in a statement in which he held the U.S. crew blameless for the collision.
"I know I speak for all Americans when I say welcome home to our flight crew," he said, adding that U.S. officials were looking forward to talking with the crew about "exactly how the accident happened."
The crew joined a long list of American soldiers and airmen, including Apollo astronauts and Vietnam POWs, who have returned from missions to Hickam. With the exception of George W. Bush, every president since Dwight Eisenhower has visited the air base.
The homecoming ended a 12-day standoff which began April 1, when a collision with a Chinese fighter jet crippled the plane and forced the crew to make an emergency landing on Hainan.
On Wednesday, Chinese and American officials agreed on the text of a letter delivered by the American ambassador to Beijing, which stated that American officials were "very sorry" for the landing and the pilot's death, but stopped short of taking responsibility for the incident.
In the carefully worded letter to China, the U.S. avoided the full apology demanded by China, while the government-run Beijing Morning Post ran a banner headline Thursday reading: "The United States finally apologizes!"
China agreed to give up the crew upon receipt of the letter. But tensions between China and the U.S. were still running high Thursday, as both nations continue to dispute who was to blame for the collision.
"China's decision to prevent the return of our crew for 11 days is inconsistent with the kind of relations we have both said we want to have," Bush said in Rose Garden press conference later Thursday.
"From all the evidence we have seen, the United States aircraft was operating in international airspace, in full accordance with all laws, procedures and regulations and did nothing to cause the accident," Bush said.
On their way home, speaking freely for the first time, crew members were interviewed about the incident and restated the U.S. view that the Chinese jet fighter caused the collision on April 1 by flying too close to the Navy surveillance plane over the South China Sea.
The United States and China are due to discuss return of the EP-3E aircraft and related issues next Wednesday.
China was also taking a hard line on the incident Thursday. In New York, Deputy U.N. Ambassador Shen Guofang told The Associated Press, "We have to make further investigations on the plane and also to have consultation on their further activities along our coastal areas."
He said investigations of U.S. flights "will take some time," and he described the April 18 meeting as one of experts, thereby suggesting it would not be conclusive.
The Chinese diplomat stopped short of saying a suspension of U.S. flights was a condition for return of the Navy plane.
Bush said the reconnaissance flights would continue. And he said U.S. officials will "ask the tough questions about China's recent practice of challenging United States aircraft operating legally in international airspace."
Bush said the incident did not help to advance a constructive U.S.-China relationship.
"We disagree on important basic issues such as human rights and religious freedom," Bush said. "At times, we have different views about the path to a more stable and secure Asian-Pacific region."
Across America, relieved relatives and friends watched television broadcasts showing the crew leaving China and arriving in Guam.
Mary Mercado, wife of aviation electronics technician Ramon Mercado, said her "heart was racing" as the plane took off from Hainan Island.
"I've had butterflies in my stomach since this morning," she said from Oak Harbor, Wash. "We're just happy they're alive and coming home safely."
Cheryl Bensing of Taylorsville, Utah, whose son, Richard Bensing, is among the crew, stayed up early Thursday to watch the plane touched down in Guam.
"I don't ever want to have to do this again," she said.
U.S. and Chinese officials both warned that the incident had not been settled. The U.S. plane, filled with high-tech, secret surveillance equipment, remained on Chinese soil, where experts have likely been taking it apart.
"This is not over," Secretary of State Colin Powell said amid meetings on the Balkans in Paris. "We still have our plane there. But this will all unfold in the days and weeks ahead."
American officials assume Chinese experts have stripped the craft of its sophisticated surveillance equipment. Satellite photos showed trucks lined up next to the plane on the tarmac of the Chinese air base in Lingshui, where it made the emergency landing.
Chinese officials have denounced U.S. surveillance flights as a violation of national sovereignty, but U.S. officials responded that there were no plans to end the practice of flying surveillance planes in international airspace near China.
The Cold War-style dispute inflamed tensions over an expected U.S. decision this month on arms sales to Taiwan, which China claims as its territory; the detention in China of several U.S.-based scholars; and the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, for which American officials apologized unconditionally.
Despite their differences, the two countries are bound by hundreds of billions of dollars in trade. China wants U.S. support for its effort to join the World Trade Organization this year and to win its bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Officials on both sides said they want to make sure the incident doesn't damage long-term relations.
— Fox News' Steve Centanni and Jim Angle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.