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.

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."

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."

It's hard to imagine how a child survived over 50 hours alone, trapped in the wreckage of a small plane. Some of Frankie's memories are sketchy, but others are clear, like the moment just after the crash.

"I started screaming, trying tro get other peoples' responses, calling Talia and Michael's name. But no one responded, so then I knew I was alone," Frankie said. "I didn't understand that what was on top of me was my seat. I didn't understand that what was above me was the bottom of the plane."

There is little doubt that if Frankie had freed herself and wandered through the jungle in only her t-shirt and shorts, she would have died of exposure.

By early the next morning, the additional rescue team reached the wreckage, carefully placed Frankie on a stretcher, and slowly carried her down the mountain. The route was incredibly steep and stressful, and the journey took more than four hours.

Halfway down the mountain, one of the rescuers made a call that reached Frankie's dad.

"She said in this very clear, distinctly her own, voice, 'Hi, daddy,' and, of course, my heart just melted," Lewis recalled.

The rescuers noticed that Frankie's face changed after she spoke to her father — she seemed more animated and determined to survive. The exhausted rescue team arrived with Frankie at a high mountain clearing where rescue helicopters were waiting, and she was flown to a hospital in the nearby town of David.

'We Are Connected Forever'

"When we saw her come off the helicopter, you could really sense that survival mechanism that was enveloping her," said Valerie Lewis. "Her body did part of it, her mind did part of it, that just kept her protected so she could survive."

Frankie survived 52 hours of exposure to cold and rain high on a mountain. After his daughter's miraculous rescue, Kirk Lewis headed up the mountain to help turn the crash site into a memorial.

"It was a quest for knowledge," Lewis said. "How could she have possibly survived? Seeing the terrain, seeing what it took to bring her back down."

With Frankie gaining strength, she and her family visited the rescue command center. Many of the rescuers were filled with emotion as they spoke of how moved they were by her miraculous survival.

"It's so hard for me to even think that it's true, even though people are telling me. It's like, 'No, that's not true. It's just a dream. Or a nightmare.'" Frankie said.

In recent weeks, Kim Klein has struggled with unbelievable grief. She has attended numerous tributes to her daughter, and hopes that Talia's memory will not be forgotten.

"I want people to see and carry on Talia's goodness," Klein said. "If Talia was here to grow up, she would have done amazing things. Capable of anything. I want people to see that."

For the Lewis family, who returned to Santa Barbara a few days after New Year's, a part of them will always remain in Panama.

"We can't just get on a plane and go back to our own world, when we've been so touched by this world, and we are connected forever," said Valerie Lewis. "And Frankie will be."

CLICK HERE to find out more about the rescue and the town of Boquete.