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Pentagon Briefing on Release of Air Crew

Aired April 11, 2001 - 20:48   ET


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST, THE POINT: We're going to go to the Pentagon right now for the briefing on the release. Let's watch.

REAR ADM. CRAIG QUIGLEY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: ... our air crew have started their journey home.

We'd like to do two things tonight: one in Washington, D.C., and one in Hawaii. I will be very brief here from the podium in the Pentagon, and discuss with you the contracting procedures and the timelines and the locations and things of that sort, from the movement of the 24, the airplane that picked them up, where it started, when it got to Hainan, when we expect it in Hawaii.

And I'll be followed about a half an hour after that from the folks in Hawaii who will brief the arrival ceremony procedures and details, the repatriation process, the debriefing process, how they're taking care of family concerns, and any additional movement questions that we may not be able to answer here.

So with that, I'd like to go to the one chart that I have. We chartered through the U.S. Transportation Command with Continental Airlines out of Guam. Now, for that airline, Guam is one of their hubs.

So what we asked for was an aircraft to be available to carry a certain number of people and to be available on three hours' notice. The way that Continental did that was to provide a 737 with two crews, so that one crew could be in a rest cycle while the other crew would be able to get that aircraft ready to launch within three hours.

They took off this morning -- we've got Eastern Daylight Time and local time here for your convenience. As you go down the right side of the chart, the local times -- that is not a typo. Because you cross the International Date Line, you stay at Thursday the whole time. So if you're the air crew, it's Thursday when you left Hainan; it'll be Thursday when you get to Guam; it'll be Thursday when you get to Hawaii. So that is not a typo, OK?

We took off from Guam at about 12:40 Eastern Daylight Time this afternoon. Many of you, I believe, saw that. Arrived at Meelan (ph) -- now, for those of who do not know where that is, I think most of you have seen where Haikou is on the northern coast of Hainan Island. Meelan (ph) is slightly south and east of there. It's a smaller city with a smaller air field, but that was the one that the Chinese wanted us to use.

So we arrived there about 6 p.m. on the dot, by my watch, tonight, Eastern time. And they were on the ground about an hour and a half. While they were there, they refueled the plane. And I'm sure many of you also saw the point at which all 24 of the air crew walked on board the aircraft. And they took off without incident.

They will arrive in Guam at about midnight, our time, tonight. And from here on out, the times are our best projection. You have the wind working against you as you travel West, and you have it working for you as you travel East. You'll notice the two times there on the Guam-to-Hainan leg. The 5.8 hours was the approximate time it took the aircraft to go from Guam to Hainan Island.

And yet we're only estimating about 4.5 hours to get back, because we've got a tail wind and we've got an assist.

So right now they're staying on that timeline pretty well, and we'll just have to adjust that as time passes. But our best guess at this point is about midnight Eastern time to arrive in Guam.

On Guam they will transfer from the 737 into a U.S. Air Force C- 17. They will also have the opportunity to shower, shave, change into a fresh set of clothes, get a good meal and telephone their families.

And we estimate about four to five hours on the ground in Guam to do all of that. And again, that's somewhat variable. And then take off in the C-17 with about an eight hour flight time to arrive in Hawaii at Hickam Air Force Base at 6:30 in the morning Hawaii time, Thursday, which will be about 12:30 in the afternoon our time tomorrow.

At that point I will turn it over to the folks in the Pacific Command for further details on arrival ceremony, how we're taking care of family concerns, the actual debriefing process that they will go through over the next two or three days.

But that is the timeline and the mechanics of how we moved from among the various points.


QUESTION: With all due respect, can you please help us out? I mean, we're not in Hawaii. Can you please tell us how long you expect them to be there and your best guess at the moment about when they'll be leaving Hawaii?

QUIGLEY: The best guess is a couple of days, but it's just that. We do have a repatriation team onboard the 737. They will transfer with the 24 crew members to the C-17 and continue on to Hawaii.

In that crew are people who have done this before, including psychologists, medical doctors, intelligence officers, and specialized skills such as that, to make sure that the physical health, their mental condition is good. And we will begin the debriefing process right then and there. It's already begun I suspect onboard the 737. So you get a 12-hour, more or less, jump start on the whole process before you get to Hawaii.

To a certain extent you have to play that by ear. But what we are looking for is, before the details of the collision start to fade in any human being's mind with time, we want to see if we can capture their memories while they are still fresh and get their understanding in their own perceptions and their own words of the details surrounding the accident, the timeline leading up to it, everything -- I mean, as complete as we can get it.

Now how long exactly that will take, we're not sure. We are going to try our darnedest to have the crew members reunited with their families by Easter. That is our goal.

QUESTION: Has Secretary Rumsfeld, you know, been able to contact the crew at all on the plane or has any other U.S. official?

QUIGLEY: No, not yet. I don't think we have the ability to communicate with the crew on the 737. Now we probably will be on the C-17, but he has not contacted the crew yet at any point.

QUESTION: How certain are you that you will get the plane back, the EP-3 that's on the ground at Hainan Island?

QUIGLEY: Well, we're certainly going to try. I mean, as you saw in Ambassador Prueher's letter released earlier today, that is one of the things that we're going to begin discussing with the Chinese on the 18th, one week from today. And we're sure going to try our very best to get the plane back. We consider it American property, and we want our plane back.

QUESTION: The letter would seem to imply that there's been some agreement to return the plane.

And it's simply a matter of working out a plan for carrying that out. Has there been any indication from the Chinese that they will return the plane?

QUIGLEY: That's not how I read the letter. No, not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: Can you give us an idea of the cost of this charter, how much it cost...

QUIGLEY: I asked that very question before I came up here, and I don't have the answer yet. The folks at U.S. Transportation Command were the ones that actually issued the contract to Continental. Let me take that question. I don't think I'm going to have it tonight, but I will be able to get it.

QUESTION: And a follow-up, when was that contract made? Was it today? Was it a few day ago? When was that deal signed? QUIGLEY: I think the actual contract was signed over the weekend so that the aircraft would be prepared to leave as early as Monday, because this was not clear as to when we would finally come to an agreement with the Chinese.

QUESTION: How many people are on the repatriation team?

QUIGLEY: Thirteen.

QUESTION: Was it a specific demand or request of the Chinese that no U.S. military plane come in to pick up this crew?

QUIGLEY: I don't know the details that were negotiated through the diplomatic means. I would refer you to the State Department.

QUESTION: Why a charter? Why weren't you just planning, contingency-wise, to just have a C-17 from the very beginning?

QUIGLEY: I mean, that option was available to us, but ultimately that's what the Chinese wanted us to do and we agreed to that.

QUESTION: The Chinese have made a demand that we stop these kinds of surveillance flights. What is the position of the Pentagon on that issue now?

QUIGLEY: A great issue to -- we understand they wish to discuss that on the 18th. We will hear what they have to say.

QUESTION: Senator Bob Graham said today that he thought the EP-3 would be taken out of Hainan on a barge. Is that correct?

QUIGLEY: Now, don't know. The first step to the return of the aircraft is to determine its ability to safely fly. And the air crew, from all of the details that we have been able to discern, made -- the pilot made an absolutely spectacular effort to bring that plane down safely.

Now that it's down on the deck, you have to have a pretty good engineering analysis done of the airplane to make sure that you understand what has been damaged as an element of the collision.

So a likely first step would be to put some sort of aviation engineering team on the ground of two or three or five people perhaps, that would have an opportunity to really take a look at the plane and go over it with a fine-tooth comb, see what elements of the aircraft can be repaired on the spot. Those that can't be repaired on the spot -- are they a safety-of-flight issue or not? -- and make a judgment call as to whether or not I can fly that plane out of there.

If I can, then how do I go about doing that? And this would be calling for further discussions with the Chinese as to how I would get parts and tools and technicians and whatnot in there to fix the plane. Where would I do that? Details like that, we simple haven't gotten to yet.

If the analysis is such that the plane is not fixable as it sits right there, then you would have to take a look at options like disassembly and somehow shipping it off of Hainan Island and to somewhere else to put it on a larger vessel and actually ship it out that way.

So first things first, and the engineering team needs to have a good look at it and come to their best professional assessment.

VAN SUSTEREN: We've been listening to a briefing at the Pentagon where Admiral Craig Quigley, telling us exactly what is going on with the U.S. crewmen. They are on their way back to the United States on a charted Continental Airlines. There are questions about whether the plane will be recovered by the United States government.

I'm Greta Van Susteren in Washington. Next: "LARRY KING LIVE."



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