Panama Plane Crash: Inside the Amazing Rescue Mission


The morning of Dec. 23, 2007, was clear but windy on the Panamanian resort island of Isla Seca, just off the Pacific coast. A small single-engine plane, with four aboard, took off and headed due east — into the mountains. The landscape below was mostly jungle and rain forest, remote and impenetrable.

Aboard the chartered plane that morning were Michael Klein, the owner of the island resort, and a successful investor and hedge fund manager; his 13-year-old daughter, Talia; the pilot, 23-year-old Panamanian Edwin Lasso; and 12-year-old Francesca Lewis, better known as Frankie, who was Talia's good friend.

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They all planned to return home the next day to Santa Barbara, Calif., for Christmas. But that morning, they had gone on an adventure, and were heading for the town of Volcan on a short sightseeing flight — that would never arrive.

It was extremely windy in the mountains — not a day fit for light aircraft, especially around the Baru volcano — and the charter flight went down.

In the nearby town of Boquete, at the foot of the Baru volcano, the local crisis management office — without radios or even first-aid kits — was not equipped for a major emergency. A local trout farmer, Luis Lamastus, called the office to say he had seen a small plane struggling in the high winds over his land.

The possible search area covered more than 200 square miles and, with darkness falling, the search would have to begin the next morning. In Santa Barbara, two families received devastating phone calls.

The Search Begins

Kim Klein, who was divorced from Michael Klein, loved the close relationship that Talia maintained with her father. She describes Talia and Michael's trips to the island as "their special thing." After hearing the news from her father-in-law, Klein called Frankie's mother, Valerie Lewis.

"She said, 'I don't know any other way to put this, there's a problem, the plane is missing.' And I freaked out. I just knew I had to get to the airport. I had to get to Panama," Lewis recalled.

At first light on Christmas Eve, the rescue began, and dozens of volunteers cut their way through the jungle to search areas where a plane had been heard or seen flying.

"It was very cold, overcast, cloudy, raining," said Lening Cordoba from the crisis management office. "We couldn't use the planes, because you couldn't see anything."

"God gave us the strength to keep going," said Miguel Burac, an electrician who began searching on foot with his brother Manuel, a coffee farmer, at dawn. "We walked, like, eight hours … my body hurt."

By midday, the Kleins and Lewises had arrived at the rescue center, full of hope, but officials had little news. Thick rain forest covers the mountain slopes, and steep ravines plunge hundreds of feet to rivers below. There are no trails on the mountain, and a small plane could easily be lost in the jungle forever.

"People started pointing at this ominous, black monster of a mountain, shrouded in swirling clouds, and said, 'that's the mountain,'" said Valerie Lewis.

Volunteer rescuer Alfonso Burke was not optimistic. "The weather conditions were worsening," he said. "A lot of rain. It was nightfall, and the people who were searching were exhausted."

"The most comforting thing to us was the hope that they were together," said Frankie's father, Kirk Lewis. "And that they were caring for each other."

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