Remains of 2 American women missing after Panama plane crash recovered


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Their bodies were located after more than 690 hours of searching.

The remains of two American women who went missing after their plane crashed off the coast of Panama a month ago have been recovered, officials said.

Debra Ann Velleman, 70, of Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Sue Borries, 57, of Teutopolis, Illinois, both retired public school teachers, were part of a community of snowbirds and expats living in the area of Chame, Panama.

The two friends were traveling home after spending New Year’s Eve weekend at a bed and breakfast on the Panamanian island Isla Contadora on Jan. 3 when their small plane, piloted by the B&B owner, suffered an engine failure and crashed off the coast of Chame, according to friends and family.

Debra Ann Velleman’s husband, Anthony Velleman, another passenger and the pilot were rescued by Panamanian search and rescue teams. Their families believed the women were still in the unrecovered plane wreckage, and as the search stretched on for days and then weeks, they pleaded with the U.S. government for help they said never came.

Tuesday morning, Velleman and Borries were recovered from inside the plane, according to Albert Lewitinn, a representative for the Velleman family.

A Panamanian search and rescue team helped recover the bodies after more than 690 hours of searching, authorities said.

The Panamanian government had requested that the U.S. deploy assets including Navy salvage divers and sonar to aid in the search effort and locate the wreckage in the days after the crash, but the request was denied due to a lack of assets and jurisdiction, according to a statement from the Velleman and Borries families.

The families continued to plead with the U.S. government to send equipment and personnel to aid in the search and recovery effort. As the effort wore on, they enlisted the help of the Wisconsin-based volunteer search and recovery organization Bruce’s Legacy and set up a GoFundMe to help defray the costs of bringing the nonprofit to Panama.

The plane was located with the help of Bruce’s Legacy, as well as a local family whose boats were used in the mission, Lewitinn said.

The families are now working on having the womens’ remains brought back to the U.S., he said.

“It is our intention — almost exactly one month following this tragic accident — to give proper thanks to all those who supported our families during this difficult time, as well as to have many outstanding questions answered by way of a swift and thorough investigation,” the families said in a joint statement. “For now, however, this finally marks the beginning of our grieving process and provides us with a path to closure.”

The Velleman family had been in touch with several Wisconsin and Illinois representatives as they sought assistance from the U.S. government in the search and recovery effort.

According to Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office, the U.S. Coast Guard provided Panamanian authorities with technical modeling to support the search for the aircraft.

ABC News had previously reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Panama for comment but did not receive a response.


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