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China Says It Will Release American Crewmembers

Aired April 11, 2001 - 11:00   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We continue our coverage now about what is happening on Hainan Island. Just a few minutes ago, we saw comments live via video phone from Brigadier General Neal Sealock talking about the latest in trying to gain the release of the 24 detainees still on Hainan Island.

We understand a plane is about to take off from Guam any minute now to go pick up those 24 crewmembers.

For the latest, let's bring in our Lisa Rose Weaver with our video phone tech -- actually, I think she's on the phone to bring us the latest on what the general had to say -- Lisa.

OK. Apparently, we are having trouble getting -- we are having trouble getting Lisa on the phone. We'll work on that.

Just to bring you up to date -- up to date about what he did just hear from the general in the moments of the final -- of the hour just before. He did say that he has yet to meet with the 24 crewmembers tonight in the wake of the news that they will soon be released.

He has no timetable -- exact timetable on the release quite yet but does believe it will happen soon and did say that telephones will be provided to the crewmembers so that they soon will be able to phone home to the relatives that have been waiting so anxiously for the news of their release. With more on the story now, here's Stephen.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Daryn, in expectation of quick movement on all this story, they have rolled out a plane on to the tarmac in Guam. It's a commercial airliner, which is the intended plane for ferrying back the 24 crewmembers.

Our Marina Kamimura is -- was on the tarmac a little while ago. She's on the phone now.

But before we actually turn to Marina, we're going to go to Lisa Rose Weaver on Hainan Island. We think we've hooked up with her now -- Lisa, can you hear us OK?

LISA ROSE WEAVER, CNN PRODUCER: Yes, I can hear you fine now, Daryn.

As we just heard from General Neal Sealock, the head of the diplomatic effort here on Hainan to secure the release of the crew, he just got back from a meeting with Chinese officials. He was not able to meet face to face with the 24 Americans. The Chinese are still considering his request for that.

So it's not clear now how many times he will be able to meet with the Americans before they depart. It's also not clear when the Americans are going to depart exactly. This is obviously a situation in high flux.

The general did say that the Chinese reassure him the crew remains in good physical health. He also -- the general also reported that the crewmembers will be able to call home soon on mobile phones. Now the Chinese had not allowed that before. They considered mobile phones recording devices. But now the -- the crew will be able to call home quite soon.

General Sealock reiterated that he wants to repatriate the crew as quickly as possible. Now he gave no more details on what exact measures the U.S. diplomats are going to be taking to facilitate the crew leaving. Presumably, he and his staff here will be very busy in the hour ahead -- in the hours ahead just facilitating the return of the Americans -- Daryn.

KAGAN: All right. Lisa Rose Weaver.

FRAZIER: Thanks, Lisa.

KAGAN: In a kind of technically dicey hour so far, and we're doing the best we can to bring you the latest information from Hainan Island.

Now that is where one part of the story is taking place. The other part on Guam where we expect within the hour a chartered Continental Airlines jet will take off to head to Hainan Island to pick up those 24 crewmembers.

For the latest on that, let's go -- actually, we'll go to that in a second. Now let's go to the Pentagon where we find our Patty Davis with the latest on this -- Patty.

PATTY DAVIS, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, Pentagon officials are hoping to be able to fly that U.S. crew out of China within the next 24 hours.

As you say, standing by on the tarmac in Guam, a chartered Continental 737 full of fuel, ready to fly to Guam to pick that crew up. We're told that that plane took on an awful lot of fuel because it doesn't want to have to refuel from the Chinese at least once it gets to Hainan Island. It wants to be able to load that crew, turn right around, come back to Guam with the 24-person crew.

At that point, when the Anderson Air Force -- at Anderson Air Base, which is where that plane will return with the crew, the crew will then be transferred on to a U.S. military C-17 for a trip to Hawaii. Hawaii is where that crew will be debriefed. We're told by Pentagon officials that debrief will last about two to three days. Some of the questions, in an operational debrief at least, that the Pentagon wants to ask is what happened in midair, exactly what did this crew have a chance to destroy as that plane was coming down to make its emergency landing and on the ground before the Chinese forced the crew from the plane.

That crew will also have a chance to change clothes, get something to eat, relax, something that they haven't really been able to do, at least on U.S. soil, in over a week. Also, physical exams, psychological exams.

The families are being notified right now of those crewmembers -- that the crew here needs a little bit of time, once it gets to Hawaii to be together, to get some closure to this ordeal that it has been through.

After that debrief is done in Hawaii, Pentagon officials say that the families of the crew will be flown to Whidbey Island -- there's a Naval air station there -- where most of the crew of this EP-3 and the plane is based.

There will be reunion of sorts, a welcome home for many of those crewmembers at Whidbey Island with their families, their first chance to see their families face to face. And then other crewmembers who are not based at that Naval air station will be sent back to their home bases as well -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Patty Davis at the Pentagon. Thank you for that update. With more, here's Stephen.

FRAZIER: Each of these incremental steps, of course, providing great solace for the families waiting for the return of these crewmembers.

Now let's go to Marina Kamimura in Guam for a sense of whether that plane is actually out there and ready to go or if it's standing by. Marina is with us via phone on Guam -- Marina.


Well, we're told by the airport authority that basically the plane here, a Continental 737 jet chartered from Continental Airlines by the U.S., is indeed ready to go.

What they are doing, though, is they believe that they are still waiting for final approval from the Chinese as to when they can -- when they should actually take off from here for the journey to Hainan. That journey, we believe, will be at least a four-hour flight on the way there.

Once the crewmembers are back on the plane and are ready to leave Hainan, expected another four-hour trip back here, although not back to the Guam International Airport where they departed but, instead, to the Anderson Air Force Base here in Guam where they will be transferred to a U.S. military plane for that journey back to Hawaii -- Stephen. FRAZIER: Marina, you may have heard, if you're hearing the program, Patty Davis was saying that plane has loaded up with enough fuel to go both legs of that trip without stopping to refuel on Hainan Island. It must be at the very extreme edge of its capabilities to go that far.

KAMIMURA: It must be. We are told by actually some sources over here that they believe, if everything goes very smoothly and, for instance, if the plane just went over smoothly, went -- flew over straight, they loaded the crewmembers on board, that they could make the return trip probably in about 10 hours time.

We had been told earlier that the plane is likely to leave perhaps sometime about an hour from now, which means conceivably these people could be back on American soil -- of course, Guam being a U.S. territory, some 11 hours from now.

So, basically, all preparations -- it appears to be fully done over here in Guam. They're just waiting the final go -- final word to toward to go -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: A late night for Marina Kamimura. It's 1:00 a.m. Thursday now in Guam. Marina, thank you very much.

KAGAN: And, of course, the final destination for these crewmembers will be Whidbey Island in Washington State. For the latest on that, let's go to our Lilian Kim who is standing by.

Lilian, I'm -- a summer union with the family members still some days away, and yet I'm sure today's news is very well received.

LILIAN KIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, definitely, Daryn. The people here at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station are, of course, relieved and thrilled to hear that the 24 crewmembers will be coming home soon.

The Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and many of the crew are based here at Whidbey Island. They either live on base or in the City of Oak Harbor, and this is a very tight-knit community.

Since this standoff began, yellow ribbons have been seen on just about every telephone pole, lamppost, and tree throughout town. In fact, stores sold out of yellow ribbons a few days after the collision occurred.

About 6 percent of Oak Harbor residents are somehow affiliated with the base, and everyone is eagerly anticipating the crewmembers' return.


KEN HARRISON, MITZEL'S RESTAURANT: You know, it's just going to be -- when they get home, there's going to be a lot of hugs and kisses and goodwill for everyone, and -- and it's just going to be a -- definitely a positive thing for a change, and that's -- we're all looking forward to that. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KIM: When the crewmembers return, there will be a celebration. There is always one after a tour of duty, but this one is expected to be even bigger than usual.

And joining is now is the mayor of Oak Harbor, Patty Cohen.

Thank you for joining us this morning. Obviously, you must be ecstatic. The whole town is ecstatic. Can you talk about that?

MAYOR PATTY COHEN, OAK HARBOR, WASHINGTON: This information touches the heart of our community. We've been waiting for this and, obviously, with this incident going on -- going on into the 11th or 12th day, we've been growing -- we've all been growing weary, and -- and the tension that's out there is very obvious on the street today. So this is -- this is what we've been waiting for this morning, this news.

KIM: And how tense has it been these past 11 days or so, knowing that the crewmembers were in China and the folks here didn't know when they were going to would be back?

COHEN: Well, I think that we are a very proud military community, and a great deal of that pride and confidence comes from knowing that our country is training some of the best and the brightest people today that -- that we have to offer, and I think -- I don't know about you, but there's a great deal of confidence and pride that comes from knowing that.

And so I think, more than anything else, we were just growing weary with the fact that this has been dragging on, but knowing we were up to the challenge, that our people were certainly up to the challenge, and we're -- we stand just as proud and tall today as we did on the first day of this detainment.

KIM: And so much support here. You're wearing a yellow ribbon. We've been seeing yellow ribbons all over town. A lot of solidarity here.

COHEN: Absolutely. We are a family. We are -- on the civilian side, we are the extended family for all of our active-duty military folks and their dependents.

KIM: We've been respecting the privacy of family members, and I know you haven't spoke to any of the family members. Can you -- but do you know how they are doing? Have you heard at all?

COHEN: They are holding up really well. We -- I have communicated with a number of the wives. I have communicated to them that we are here for them. If there's anything they need, all they need to do is pick up that phone. And just knowing that the community has been -- the community has been providing that emotional and physical and moral support that they so badly needed at this time has been very important to them.

KIM: And as I said earlier, there will be a big celebration here.

COHEN: There will be a huge cel -- you can imagine what it's like when you live through a family crisis, when that crisis comes to an end, what it's to what it like, so the celebration will be great.

KIM: And will it be a joint effort by the city and the base?

COHEN: Absolutely.

KIM: And what can we expect when we finally have those crewmembers return home, as far as the celebration and as far as the outpouring of support?

COHEN: I have not been involved with the planning of that effort, but it's probably going to be the highlight of the year for this community, I'm sure.

KIM: All right. Well, thank you very much. Patty Cohen, the mayor of Oak Harbor. That is the latest here at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Again, a big is celebration is expected when these crewmembers finally return home -- Daryn and Stephen, back to you.

KAGAN: Lilian Kim, thank you so much for that report.

FRAZIER: Things started happening fast the early hours of this morning, but, throughout all of this, President Bush has maintained that it's business as usual at the White House, and to that end, he has traveled to North Carolina to discuss education, of all things, although, of course, he's keeping one eye very close -- watching with one eye all of these developments happening in Asia.

Our Major Garrett is traveling with the president, and we're going to turn to him now in Concord, North Carolina -- Major, good morning again.


The president of the United States due here any minute to talk, as you said, about one of his favorite domestic topics, education, and as you also pointed out, the purpose of this trip was not to talk only about education and also his budget, but to send a signal not only to the United States but to the Chinese officials that it was business as usual with this president, that he was not being at all distracted or in any way deterred from his normal schedule by the episode dealing with the 24 crewmembers.

The White House has said throughout this situation that it was pursuing a policy of quiet diplomacy with the Chinese, and the president came to the White House briefing room this morning to announce his very happy news that this episode never became an international incident or ordeal.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm pleased to be able to tell the American people that plans are underway to bring home our 24 American servicemen and women from Hainan Island. This morning, the Chinese government assured our American ambassador that the crew would leave promptly. We're working on arrangements to pick them up and to bring them home.


GARRETT: Stephen, the president of the United States is monitoring very closely all of the logistics efforts to bring those crewmembers home. We've also been given a -- quite a few details about exactly the sequence of events at the White House starting at 12:45 a.m. Eastern Time this morning.

That is when the president's National Security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, received a phone call from the State Department alerting her that the Chinese officials had requested to see the final draft of the letter to their government from U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher.

At 5:00 a.m., Ambassador Prueher met with the Chinese officials, and sometime after that, they gave him their verbal assurances that all 24 crewmembers would be released.

At about 5:40 a.m. Eastern Time, Dr. Rice, the National Security adviser, called the president of the United States to give him the good news. We are told by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer that, at that moment, the president turned to the first lady, Laura Bush, and said they're coming home. That's not a direct quote, but he relayed the information.

At 6:30 a.m., a crucial event occurred. Chinese national television announced officially that the crew would be released. That was considered a vital sign to the U.S. officials. The president was called again to confirm that the Chinese had announced the crew would be released.

At 6:50 this morning, he arrived at the Oval Office, met with Condoleezza Rice and his other top advisers to put together the morning's events, which included a paper statement about his -- noting his pleasure this has happened, and then also coming to the briefing room to make that very brief announcement that the crew was coming home.

We're also told by White House officials that, at this first stop here at Concord Middle School, the president will also address the release of crew -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: I'm guessing, Garrett, that as you talk to those White House officials you just mentioned that you're hearing them express a sense of satisfaction at their handling of all of this?

GARRETT: Very deep sense of satisfaction, and it works out at a couple of levels. Some advisers tell CNN that one thing that was always working to the president's advantage throughout all of this is that he is a conservative Republican.

Now why does that matter? Well, because many most of the most vociferous critics of China come from his own party, and because they expected him to take a diplomatic line but, at some point, a tougher line, they did not press him in public. They did not criticize him as they might have someone from another party, for example.

And, also, the White House was very encouraged that everyone in the president's team was on the same page. There were no camps. There were no tough-on-China camps, no-diplomatic-approach camps. Everyone was on the same team. Everyone believed that it would take some time.

The president even said yesterday sometimes diplomacy takes longer than people are happy with, but, nevertheless, it worked out.

The White House believes this is proof positive the president set exactly the right tone, not only for nation but for his administration, and they're very happy it's over.

FRAZIER: Major, thanks for those insights and for that time line on developments, and I expect we'll be talking to you a little later in this hour because we know the president himself will be speaking on this and other matters. We will bring the president's comments to you live. And, Major, I guess we'll talk to you again then -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, all morning long, we've been bringing the news from us to you. Now we want to hear from you. What do you think the U.S.- China standoff -- what do you think of it and how it was handled? We'd like to hear your comments on the agreement. Send your e-mail to We will put some of those comments on the air.



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