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12-year-old survivor of plane crash reunited with family

Thursday, December 27, 2007

DAVID, Panama -- The sole survivor of a plane crash was reunited with her family Wednesday after rescue workers trekked for five hours to carry the 12-year-old American girl out of a remote mountain area, then airlifted her to a hospital.

Francesca Lewis, wearing a neck brace and with one arm bandaged, met with her parents at a hospital in the town of David.

Michael Klein, a California businessman, and his 13-year-old daughter Talia -- a friend of Francesca -- were killed in Sunday's crash near the jungle-flanked slopes of the Baru volcano, 270 miles west of the capital, Panama City. The Panamanian pilot Edwin Lasso, 23, was also killed.

Francesca was in stable condition at a private hospital with hypothermia, contusions and muscle injuries.

She does not remember much about the crash, said Samuel Catta, the doctor treating her.

"She lost consciousness, and she only remembers (the plane) falling into a cloud, and then she saw trees," said Catta, who is treating the girl.

Catta said the girl will probably remain hospitalized for at least a week.

Francesca's mother, father, uncle and sister came down from the United States to care for her. Earlier Wednesday, her mother, Valerie Lewis, told The Associated Press her daughter could walk, but had apparently suffered a broken arm and hypothermia.

"My husband spoke to her by phone this morning," Lewis said. "She sounded good. She just said 'Hi, daddy. See you soon."'

Rescue workers struggled for five hours against heavy rains and high-altitude winds to carry Francesca by stretcher from the crash site to a spot where a helicopter could land, Chiriqui Civil Protection Director Armando Palacios told AP.

A preliminary investigation showed the Cessna 172 struck a tree and split in two, said National Civil Protection Director Roberto Velasquez.

"It is miraculous that the girl could survive that impact," he said.

Rescuers spent two days combing the mountainous area before finding Francesca and the bodies of the three others Tuesday. But cold, wet weather prevented her immediate evacuation, and she was initially treated in a makeshift shelter.

Michael Klein, 37, was the chief executive officer of Pacificor LLC, a Santa Barbara-based company that manages several hedge funds. He founded two companies in the 1990s before becoming president and CEO of eGroups Inc., which was the world's largest group e-mail communication service. Yahoo Inc. purchased eGroups for $450 million in August 2000 and it is now known as Yahoo Groups.

Aviation authorities said the cause of the crash was not yet known, but Panama's RPC radio reported that witnesses saw the plane flying at a very low altitude around noon Sunday amid buffeting winds.

Michael Klein was on vacation with the two girls at an eco-resort he owns in the Central American nation, according to Kim Klein, his ex-wife and Talia's mother. The three had been scheduled to return to Santa Barbara on Monday, she told the AP from Boquete, Panama, an area close to David, on Tuesday.

Their plane disappeared after departing from Islas Secas off Panama's Pacific coast, heading for the Chiriqui volcano, about 285 miles west of the capital.

A colleague described Klein as a brilliant businessman who skipped high school and graduated from college at age 17.

"One of the most interesting people you could ever speak to on any ... myriad of subjects," Kurt Benjamin, the vice president of business development at Pacificor, told KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. "He's just an unbelievable individual."

Benjamin said Klein was close to his daughter.

"Her father was so proud of her," he said. "She was an amazing, accomplished horseback rider -- just an absolute winner. Solid, solid young girl."


Associated Press writers Jessica Bernstein-Wax in Mexico City and Greg Risling in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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