By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009
BURBANK, Calif., Aug. 5 -- Almost any airplane hangar could double as a soundstage, and in the gray light of Wednesday's dawn, Hangar 25 at Bob Hope Airport began to feel more than a little like another Southern California morning on the set.
The vast, antiseptic space was designated for the day's great reunion scene. Camera crews were ushered to risers behind velvet ropes. Caterers set out a breakfast of quiche, baby potatoes and yogurt. The smartly dressed men who were not with the Secret Service explained that they worked for Rogers and Cowan, a Hollywood public relations company.
At 5:52 a.m., word was passed that the plane had landed. Three minutes later, the jet's engines wound down just outside the huge doors, which, when pulled aside, framed a gorgeous aircraft the color of cream against the brown backdrop of the Verdugo Hills. Chrome trim on the wings and engines glittered in the television lights.
"Ladies and gentleman," an announcer's voice intoned, "please help me in welcoming home Laura Ling and Euna Lee!"
Two slender, dark-haired women scampered down the stairs, the first pausing on the fourth step to bow -- and, just like that, a space that a moment earlier had felt huge and sterile welled with the kind of emotion that rises first in the chest, then the throat, then catches there.
Lee, 36, reached the bottom of the stairs first, threw one arm around her husband, Michael Saldate, the other around their daughter, Hanna, and then appeared almost to collapse as she dropped to one knee to face the 4-year-old. Taking the girl's hands in her own, Lee wore an expression so intense that from a distance it looked like grief. Hanna graduated from preschool during her mother's 140 days in detention in North Korea.
Behind them, Ling, 32, had her husband around the neck. Iain Clayton, an investment banker from Britain, released his wife to her mother, Mary, who then spent some time dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
Former president Bill Clinton stayed out of sight for a respectable interval, then appeared at the top of the stairs, pressed his fingers together in that little clapping gesture of his, and descended to warm applause. He was followed by John D. Podesta, his former chief of staff, who ran President Obama's transition operation and was part of the team Clinton took to Pyongyang to win the women's release.
Former vice president Al Gore, who co-founded Current TV, a San Francisco cable and Web network that employs Lee and Ling, waited in a suit of sincere blue to embrace both men.
"We could feel your love all the way in North Korea. It's what kept us going through the darkest hours," Ling said after the group assembled behind a microphone.
A seasoned correspondent, Ling spoke without glancing at notes. But she sniffed more than once, struggling for composure. "Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea," she said. "We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard-labor camp."
She read out a list of thank-yous, naming Steve Bing, a producer whose Shangri-la Productions owns the plane and its hangar, an environmental showcase that includes solar panels and seven huge fans whirling overhead.
She made no reference to being captured March 17 by North Korean border guards while she and Lee were reporting a story about refugees fleeing to China. Exactly what happened has never been clear; the Current TV cameraman who escaped apprehension has declined all interviews.
"There's probably more that we don't know," Ling's sister Lisa Ling, also a TV journalist, told reporters afterward. "When they left U.S. soil, they never intended to cross the border as journalists. When you're in the field, you never know what is going to arise, and things can be unpredictable. Whatever happened that day, she'll tell you when she's ready to."
Clinton did not speak publicly, but he fielded a call from Obama, who stepped into the White House Rose Garden to declare "the reunion that we've all seen on television" a source of happiness for the entire country. Clinton's staff members released a statement underscoring the "humanitarian" nature of a mission the Obama administration continued to describe as private.
Clayton, meanwhile, confirmed that the idea of sending the former president was that of the captors and was passed on by Ling in one of several telephone calls the women were allowed to make over the 4 1/2 months. "She said it was her sense and her feeling that a visit by president Clinton would be successful in securing their release," he said. "And what we obviously did was inform vice president Gore and the State Department of the nature of that call."
The information added resonance to Ling's account of being led into a room by her captors and seeing "standing before us, president Bill Clinton."
Ling said that "we knew immediately in our hearts" that they would be freed.
After Ling, only Gore took the microphone, thanking Clinton, the patient, disciplined families and the thousands of strangers who had joined efforts to ensure this "happy ending."
Then the families and travelers shifted their mingling to the far side of the plane, beyond camera range. They were still chatting half an hour later when Hanna emerged from a restroom with her grandmother.
"All right? All right!" Karen Saldate said to the girl, who nodded, then set off across the concrete floor in her mother's direction, skipping.