- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

The freed crew members of the U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance plane said yesterday they were warned of a "trial" and were read possible "charges" against them by Chinese officials while being held in China.

In interviews on various morning network news talk shows yesterday, the pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, the co-pilot, Lt. Jeffrey Vignery, and others of the crew described "hours and hours" of questioning by Chinese officials and of repeated demands that they apologize for the April 1 midair collision between a U.S. plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet if they wanted to go home.

"There was a lot of propaganda read [that was] … pretty much trying to indicate that it was our fault for the accident that took place. But all of us on board definitely knew who was at fault," Lt. Vignery said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

He was referring to Wang Wei, the pilot of the Chinese fighter that made harassing passes some as close as 3 feet before colliding with the lumbering EP-3E surveillance plane. The crash sheared off the plane's nose cone, nearly tore off its No. 1 propeller, and caused it to plunge 7,500 feet before Lt. Osborn regained control.

The Chinese, however, continue to insist that the U.S. plane made a sudden move, swerving and hitting its jet.

Asked if the Chinese interrogators ever warned the 24 crew members they might be put on trial, Lt. Vignery said, "They said that after the initial investigation … there might be a trial."

Lt. Osborn, who has been hailed in this country as a hero for landing the crippled plane safely, said in an interview on ABC's "This Week" that the Chinese actually "read all the charges, all that type of thing" they said were facing the crew members.

"I don't want to get into any specifics, but [they] let us know how much trouble we could be in and they'd tell us what we need to do to go home… . They said they couldn't let us leave until the investigation was complete and there was an apology," the American pilot said.

ABC newswoman Cokie Roberts asked Lt. Osborn if, during that time, he had "visions of a show trial," where he would be "standing in the dock."

"I thought about it. But it didn't really matter. I wasn't going to apologize," he said.

Asked if crew members were asked over and over again for an apology, Lt. Osborn said, "Oh, yes. Repeatedly. Hours and hours and hours."

Lt. Osborn and other crew members who were guests on talk shows yesterday said they did not experience physical pain at the hands of their Chinese captors and were given enough to eat.

But Lt. Osborn said there was "harassment" in the form of being awakened repeatedly in the middle of the night and asked questions on almost any topic including ones as mundane as the condition of the air conditioner.

On NBC, Lt. Vignery said the Chinese sometimes claimed that the Americans were forgotten back home. "That was mentioned a couple of times… . But we never lost the faith."

"We knew that the American government was working hard for us, and we knew that the support from the American people was there for us, and there was never a doubt, I don't think, in any of the crew members' minds that we were going to be coming home and it was only a matter of time," the co-pilot said.

Lt. Osborn was kept in solitary confinement for most of his detention, although he did get to join other crew members for meals. He said he was initially subjected to five hours of interrogation, and because of that ordeal, he had fears for some time he might undergo physical abuse.

Lt. Osborn said the Navy crew members learned the first night they were in China from Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. military attache in Beijing that U.S. officials at the highest levels of government were working for their release.

But he said it wasn't until the third night that they found out about the tremendous support they were receiving from the American public. Finding that out was especially gratifying, he said.

However, the news of the crew's difficult experience did not dampen the festive mood yesterday. Church bells rang for a joyous Easter in Oak Harbor, Wash., a Navy town where crew members spent their first full day reunited with family and friends after being detained on China's Hainan island for 12 days.

On Saturday, a military passenger jet brought the 21 men and three women back to their base at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, and they were given a hero's welcome.

A big sign outside Southern Baptist Church proclaimed, "Praise God They're Back." Everyone at the ladies' Bible study group, which met before Easter services, talked about Saturday's welcome-home celebration that drew 7,000 people to a base hangar.

Yesterday also marked the first day of up to a month of time off for the crew members. Navy officials want to make sure they are mentally ready to handle a return to duty.

Lt. Osborn, who also appeared on CNN's "Late Edition," said on that show he wants to return to flying and has no qualms about returning to reconnaissance flights near the Chinese coastline. "Give me a week to rest up, and I'll be out there," he said.

In the ABC interview, he relived the terrifying moments after his plane was struck by the Chinese jet. He said the same jet had come in very close twice before colliding with the EP-3E the third time.

"The first thing I thought [after impact] was, 'This guy just killed us,' " Lt. Osborn said.

On CNN, the Navy pilot said the jet was "just three to five feet off our wing" immediately before the collision.

"This guy was definitely in our space. I had never seen anything like this before," Senior Chief Nicholas Mellos, flight engineer on the EP-3E, said on CNN's "Late Edition."

But in China, Mr. Wang, who was killed in the crash, remains a hero, as rhetoric blaming the United States for the accident continues to escalate.

On Saturday, Chinese state-run media hailed the dead pilot as a "revolutionary martyr" and denounced the U.S. version of events that led to the crash.

China's official Xinhua news agency also presented a detailed account of how it said the U.S. plane had violated international law when it collided with Mr. Wang's F-8 fighter and then made an emergency landing on the southern island of Hainan.

"Under international law, the United States should take national responsibility for its illegal actions, including ending encroachments, compensating for losses, guaranteeing not to repeat its errors and apologizing to China," Xinhua said in a news commentary.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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