The families of two missing American citizens — one of them from Waukesha — are asking the U.S. government to assist authorities in Panama in searching for their relatives after a plane crash off the coast of the Central American country last week.
Deb Velleman, 70, of Waukesha and Sue Borries, 57, of Illinois have been missing since the crash occurred Jan. 3, according to a Jan. 9 statement from the families posted on bringdebraandsuehome.com and on the Facebook account of Jake Velleman, Deb’s son.
Jake Velleman posted on Facebook last week that his parents and “three of their dear friends” were on the plane and that it had suffered an engine failure and crashed the afternoon of Jan. 3. Velleman said his father, Anthony, and two others had been rescued. Velleman also said his father was being treated for non-life threatening injuries at Hospital Nacional in Panama City and that his father was scheduled Jan. 7 to undergo the first of at least two surgeries to repair fractures.
A media contact for the Velleman family, Albert Lewitinn, said that Velleman’s husband, Anthony, had successful spinal surgery the evening of Jan. 10 and “is on the mend.”
“The plan is to Med-evac him to Wisconsin this week, probably Thursday,” said Lewitinn in an email to a reporter.
The family’s Jan. 9 statement said the Panamanian government has formally asked the United States for help in the search, but so far, the U.S. government has yet to respond. It also said the families of both missing women are in Panama “anxiously awaiting news”.
The statement also said Panamanian authorities have been conducting a round-the-clock air, sea and land search and are aware of the aircraft’s last-known coordinates — but need help locating the wrecked aircraft.
“Both the Borries family — U.S. military veterans among them — and the Velleman family urge their government to lend the personnel and equipment realistically required to bring these Americans home,” the statement said.
Lewitinn said staff from both Senator Tammy Baldwin’s office and Representative Scott Fitzgerald’s office have reached out to Jake Velleman, who is still in Panama, on the morning of Jan. 11.
“They are pledging to get involved, but I’m awaiting to hear about what that precisely means,” Lewitinn said.
A member of Baldwin’s staff said in an email Tuesday her office had reached out to the embassy in Panama and provided some additional details of the search effort.
“The United States Coast Guard provided technical modeling support to help Panamanian authorities determine where the aircraft entered the water,” said Baldwin’s Communications Director John Kraus in an email. “The Department of State, through its Embassy in Panama City, is working in close coordination with the National Transportation Safety Board and USCG to support the Panamanian search operation. The U.S. Embassy is also maintaining contact with the families of those missing and the Panamanian government throughout this response.”
Kelli Liegel, a press secretary for Fitzgerald’s office, said in an email that Fitzgerald’s office doesn’t comment on ongoing casework.
Lewitinn said on the evening of Jan. 10, the Vellemans received an email from the U.S. Embassy saying the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Coast Guard reviewed the request (for assistance) “but did not have assets to deploy.”
In response, Lewitinn said the family released a statement Jan. 10 saying it did not accept the embassy’s response.
“Just last week, the US Charge located in Panama informed us that this is NOT a complex deep sea operation due to the location being in relatively shallow waters and close to the coast. This is a search and recovery of an airplane, more importantly and with utmost priority, recovering two U.S. Citizens,” the statement said.
“The only acceptable outcome is that our loved ones are found and recovered so that our families can begin the long and difficult grieving process. Until our loved ones are recovered and brought home that cannot occur. It is the United States Government’s duty to provide much needed assistance in accomplishing this.”
Missing Waukesha woman worked as a teacher for 40 years
Lewitinn said the Vellemans were originally from Appleton and moved to Waukesha, where Debra Velleman worked as a public school teacher for 40 years. The Vellemans’ second home was in Panama, and the couple were spending the winter there. They lived in a community of expats and snowbirds in the area of Chame, Panama.
One of the Vellemans’ friends was the owner of a bed and breakfast on Isla Contadora, off the coast of Panama, and would bring people back and forth to the island on his small plane. The Vellemans were at the bed and breakfast celebrating New Years’ weekend, Lewittinn said.
On Jan. 3, the Vellemans were heading back from their weekend on the island when the plane, piloted by the bed and breakfast owner, crashed.
Jake Velleman also said in his Facebook post last week that he wanted to express his appreciation for the support his family has received.
“The love and support from the people who have touched our lives — and whose lives have been touched by my parents — is deeply meaningful to us during this devastating time,” Velleman said.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Waukesha woman still missing after plane crash off Panama coast