China cited "humanitarian grounds" for the release, but a tightly worded letter from the American ambassador in Beijing to the Chinese government was what ended the 11-day impasse, a standoff that strained already tense U.S-China relations.
A military plane is now taking the spy plane's crew from Guam to Hawaii, where they are expected to arrive by 12:30 p.m. ET Thursday. A civilian aircraft carrying the 24 servicemen and women left Hainan Island, where they have been held, late Wednesday ET, headed to Guam.
On the way, staff will check the crew's medical condition and debrief them on what sensitive information the Chinese may have gleaned from examining the American EP-3E spy plane, which remains in China.
Finally, the crew members will return to their home base at Whidbey Island, Wash., to be reunited with anxious family members. CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker reports orders are for the crew to be home for Easter, which means they would have to be on their way from Hawaii by Saturday.
As late as Tuesday, President Bush characterized the dispute as a "stalemate" and warned that resolving it could take a while.
From the outset, the U.S. government demanded the return of the plane and crew. China, whose pilot went missing and is resumed dead, insisted on an American apology.
CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen reports that signs the ice was breaking emerged Wednesday, when a small but crucial change was made to a U.S. letter offered to the Chinese days ago.
At about 5 p.m. Beijing time, Chinese officials summoned U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher to the foreign ministry, where the word "sorry" in the original draft was changed to "very sorry," and the deal was done.
The letter, written by Prueher to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, read. "Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss."
A senior administration official says the difficulty in working out a deal was coming up with language in a letter that was acceptable to both sides. The word "apology," for example, does not appear in the English version of the U.S. letter.
However, while the English translation uses the word "very sorry," expressing mere sadness, the Chinese version uses the word "qian-yi," meaning profound regret and implying an acceptance of responsibility for wrongdoing.
That allows the Chinese to claim that they were right from the beginning and gracious to release the crew. Indeed, a Communist party newspaper credited Beijing's leaders with "victory." But a senior administration official said, "We gave them the letter in English, and that's the letter we stand by."
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and meet the crew.
CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante reports Mr. Bush knew Tuesday that a dispute over the language of the U.S. letter, which had been in the works for a week, was holding things up. When he appeared to welcome the deal, the president pointedly spoke of "sorrow" for the first time.
"This has been a difficult situation for both our countries. I know the American people join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of life of a Chinese pilot," the president said.
Administration officials said Mr. Bush's expression of "sorrow" was not part of the agreement with the Chinese, but that he was aware that it would be seen as a personal gesture.
The letter also says "our severely crippled aircraft made an emergency landing we are very sorry the entering of China's airspace did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely."
China has accused the U.S. pilot of illegally entering Chinese territory by making the emergency landing on Hainan without obtaining permission in advance.
"That young pilot was faced with a crisis. His plane had been badly damaged. He had to get it on the ground. He had 23 lives plus his own to save," he said. "But he did enter airspace without permission because we were unable to get permission, and for that we are very sorry but glad he did it."
The letter did not admit that the spy plane was in Chinese air space before the collision, as China has asked. Instead, it holds that "the full picture of what transpired is still unclear" and says a joint Chinese-U.S. commission will meet April 18 to hammer out details on the fate of the spy plane, the causes of the collision and China's concerns about U.S. spying.
For the moment, both the fate of the plane and the future of U.S.-Chinese relations are in doubt.
"This is not over," said Powell. "Some discussions will begin and we still have our plane there. But this will all unfold in the days and weeks ahead. I don't see anything that is not recoverable."
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