Panama Plane Crash: Inside the Amazing Rescue Mission

The dramatic search and rescue of 12-year-old Francesca Lewis in Panama.

ByABC News
February 7, 2008, 1:01 PM

Feb. 15, 2008— -- 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.

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.

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."

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.

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."