The 24 crew members of the Navy reconnaissance plane held in China landed at their home base Saturday, greeted by thousands of friends, family members and other well-wishers.
The military passenger jet, which had left Hawaii five hours earlier, touched down at this Navy base about 50 miles north of Seattle at 3:57 p.m. PDT. Before landing, the plane made a fly-by to circle the base, where an estimated 7,000 people waited to cheer the crew home.
The plane taxied to a giant hanger, where hundreds of sailors and officers in dress blues stood at attention. The crowd, many dressed in red, white and blue, waved flags and signs. "We are so proud of you," one sign read.
Around here these are more than signs of support or patriotism, reports CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone. This is the embrace of an extended military family.
The surveillance plane's pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, was the first off the plane after it arrived at Whidbey, acknowledging the screaming crowd with a brief wave, before walking past an honor guard to be greeted by Navy officials, Gov. Gary Locke, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and other dignitaries.
As each crew member left the official welcome, loved ones rushed to greet them, enveloping them in deep hugs.
The 21 men and three women and their family and friends were escorted into a nearby tent for a few private moments while the crowd filtered into the hangar for the formal welcome and speeches.
Rear Adm. Michael Holmes, commander of the Navy's Pacific patrol and reconnaissance force, praised the crew as heroes, but singled out Osborn for his coolness in landing his crippled plane.
No other course of action other than the course he took would have ensured all 24 cew members being here this afternoon, Holmes said. Lt. Osborn made the right decisions.
Theresa Pierzchala of Oak Harbor said she started crying when Osborn walked off the plane into the bright afternoon sunshine.
It was awesome. It was just the most moving experience, she said. It was just so emotional. I'm so glad they're home.
I just met 24 of the most humble and modest people I will ever meet in my life, said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who was in the receiving line. All they said is, `We're just doing our job.'
Flags and Welcome Home signs were hung among yellow ribbons all over Oak Harbor, the town of 21,000 just outside the Navy base 50 miles north of Seattle. At Whidbey, red, white and blue balloons decorated the hangar, where a 40-by-60 foot American flag hung above a platform stage.
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 before the plane landed. There were angels under the wings of that plane.
Cecka was embraced by his wife, Nikki, who handed him his infant son, Cameron. Cecka held his little boy close to his face for nearly a minute, cooing and smiling.
It was like something you see out of the movies, said Linda Sweeten of Sedro Woolley, who watched the Cecka reunite.
The homecoming all but shut down Oak Harbor.
This is a military town. Anything that happens with the fliers, it affects everyone, said Marie Wirfs, 55, while eating breakfast earlier in the day with her daughter and son-in-law at Mitzel's American Kitchen just outside the base.
Everyone was very, very upset. They all pulled together. Now they're ecstatic, she said.
Wirfs' daughter, Alison Leonard, 34, of Edmonds, said she and her husband were in the Army and she knows what it's like to be worried about someone who is away.
The pilot is the hero. He got everybody down, Leonard said. They did what they were supposed to do.
The American crew was detained until Wednesday, when a delicate diplomatic standoff was resolved by a U.S. letter saying America was "very sorry" for the pilot's death and the spy plane's landing on Chinese territory.
But the U.S. has denied wrongdoing. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld Friday showed reporters a videotape of an earlier episode to bolster U.S. claims that the Chinese pilot's aggressive moves led to the crash.
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