Panama Plane Crash: Inside the Amazing Rescue Mission


By 10 p.m. local time, with no good news, the search was called off for the night. Christmas Day brought more bad weather, but also more volunteers. Over 100 men joined the rescue efforts, and the Burac brothers decided to separate into groups on the mountain.

'Help Me'

For the next seven hours, Miguel Burac and Burke climbed higher and higher. For a moment, the weather cleared up, and Burac could see farther through his binoculars.

"With my binoculars, I saw to the left what looked like a piece of white metal," he said.

The group pressed on, cutting a path with their machetes, and after an hour, they reached the site. As they approached it, they began to see glass on the ground, but the area was so obscured by vegetation, they couldn't see the wreckage until they were only three yards away.

"I bumped into the front part first, stuck in a tree, and pieces of fuselage. The scene upset me, because I knew there couldn't be any survivors," said Burac. "The rest of the plane was completely destroyed on the ground."

They found the bodies of two men, ejected from the wreckage, and under the front of the fuselage, the body of a girl.

But then, they heard a faint voice.

"We were all scared," said Burac. "Suddenly, while we're clearing with the machetes, we hear some groans, and words, 'Help me, help me,' and Alfonso said, 'Oh, there's someone there alive.' And my skin got the shivers."

Miraculously, Frankie Lewis had survived the crash. It took the three men 15 minutes to free her — she had been upside down, pressed against her seat with suitcases on top of her.

"I didn't know if she had fractures, blows, something that could hurt her more," said Burke. "Once we got her free, we could see there weren't major injuries."

"It took awhile for them to finally get me out," Frankie said. "And then, when they were trying to move me, it was so painful."

"Her lips were blue. Her face was blue. Her clothes were wet," recalled Burac. "We wrapped her in a blanket and in plastic bags and more bags. Something to keep her warm."

Burac then headed higher up the mountain, trying to find a place where his cell phone would work. Kim Klein and Valerie Lewis were awaiting news when the call came in, and braced themselves when they heard there was only one survivor — a young girl.

"I was afraid to believe there was only one, while being next to Kim, knowing that she was afraid to believe there was only one," said Lewis.

"We both just looked at each other. And we both wanted it to be our daughters," said Klein.

Fighting for Her Life

On foot, a select team of rescuers headed up the mountain into the dark jungle, at great risk. They climbed through the night. At the crash site, above 8,000 feet, Burac and Burke huddled next to Frankie.

"I couldn't stop shivering, couldn't close my hand, and in the middle of the night, I couldn't feel my legs. She gave me strength … she was alive, and I had more strength talking to her, seeing her, giving her sweets and water," said Burac.

But Frankie was fighting hypothermia and fading fast.

"She entered into a state of shock," said Burac. "Her body was shaking, and I said, 'God help me.' I started to pray. I thought Frankie wasn't going to make it."

Frankie recalls that Burac and Burke also talked to her through the night, to make sure she was hanging on. "Even though I didn't know who these people were, just not being alone was a lot helpful."

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