(CNSNews.com) - The 24 aviators detained since April 1 on China's Hainan Island will soon be heading home. The plane landed on the island around 6 p.m. EST and refueled before the crew boarded. They are expected to leave for Guam within an hour.
Speaking in Greenville, N.C. Wednesday evening, President Bush said, "I'm pleased to report that a commercial charter airplane is close to landing in Hainan Island." His announcement was met with applause from the crowd who cheered "USA!"
"The plane is expected to leave that island in a couple of hours bound for Guam and then for Hawaii," the president said. "Earlier today, I had the privilege and honor to meet fellow North Carolinians Bob and Sandra Blocher, the parents of one of the 24 crewmembers, Petty Officer 3rd Class Steven Blocher."
Bush said the Blochers and the other 23 families are relieved "to know that the servicemen and women are returning home."
The president added, "These have been difficult days for all the families. These days are a reminder of the sacrifices all our men and women in uniform and their family make every single day for freedom. And so, we are proud and thankful for the service of folks. We're proud and thankful for their parents, and we can't wait for them to get home."
Wednesday morning, the president announced that the standoff was over, expressing regret for the loss of the Chinese pilot.
"I know the American people join me in expressing sorry for the loss of a life of a Chinese pilot," Bush said. "Our prayers are with his wife and his child."
A diplomatically worded letter from U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan expressed regret for both the presumed death of the Chinese pilot and landing without permission on Chinese soil.
In the letter Prueher said, "Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss."
Prueher added, "Although the full picture of what transpired is still unclear, according to our information, our severely crippled aircraft made an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures. We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely. We appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew."
Both sides agreed to a meeting on April 18 at which time they will discuss the incident.
"The meeting agenda would include discussion of the causes of the incident, possible recommendations whereby such collisions could be avoided in the future, development of a plan for prompt return of the EP-3 aircraft, and other related issues. We acknowledge your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting," Prueher said in the letter.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, meanwhile, said there will be no lasting damage to the U.S.-China relations as a result of the standoff.
"I don't see anything that isn't recoverable," Powell said at a news conference in Paris. "I think we've stopped this process that was unfolding before it became more serious."