CHICAGO (CBS) — A plane carrying five people – including a retired Illinois schoolteacher – went down in Panama earlier this month.
Amazingly, three people were found alive afterward. But the teacher and another educator were still missing more than a week later Friday.
CBS 2’s Charlie De Mar spoke with their families as each day brings more anxiety. The two missing women’s families both say they feel lost in the sea of bureaucracy, and the son of one of the women is calling on the U.S. government to pitch in and send some resources – which he said has not happened to this point.
The plane went down in the water on Monday, Jan. 3 while flying from Isla Contadora to Punta Chame on the Panamanian mainland, CBS 58 Milwaukee reported.
Four people and a pilot were on the plane at the time. They included Anthony and Debra Velleman of Waukesha, Wisconsin near Milwaukee; Sue Borries of downstate Teutopolis, Illinois; and Melisa Zachrich – only described by CBS 58 as being from the U.S. – along with a Canadian pilot.
Anthony Velleman, Zachrich, and the pilot were rescued and survived. But Borries and Debra Velleman were still missing late Friday.
“We’re two grieving families that are literally out here on the beach with binoculars,” said the Vellemans’ son, Jake Velleman.
Authorities in Panama have joined the search from the air and on the ground.
“They have an outstanding search-and-rescue team, but they need help,” said Jake Velleman.
Jake Velleman says it is not enough — with Debra Velleman, his mom, and Borries, a family friend, still missing.
“Everyone is asking the same question, which is, where is the U.S. response to this?” Jake Velleman said.
Borries, 57, and Debra Velleman, 70, are both former public school teachers. They became fast friends as expats spending their winters in Panama.
Jake said the small plane’s engine failed to cause the crash.
“You know, every day I’m crying, because I – both out of frustration with the situation and because my parents were and are deeply lived by many, many people,” he said.
Jake Velleman said so far, they have received little to no help from the U.S. government. He fears without that assistance, the plane and the two women may never be found.
“The moment someone does the right thing and gets involved in meaningful way, we hope, is the moment we can finally move on to the grieving process,” he said.
Velleman’s dad was flown back to Wisconsin, where he has undergone several surgeries.
The Borries and Velleman families released the following statement this week:
“The families of two American citizens—still missing after their plane crashed off the coast of Panama—are urging the United States government to help in the search to retrieve their missing loved ones.
“The crash occurred on the afternoon of Monday, January 3. Two American passengers were rescued by Panamanian search and rescue teams, but 57-year-old Sue Borries of Illinois and 70-year-old Deb Velleman of Wisconsin have yet to be found.
“The Panamanian government has formally asked the United States for help in the search to recover the American citizens. The U.S Government has responded to the families’ request for additional search assets stating that the United States Government, including both the Department of Defense and U.S. Coast Guard reviewed the request, but ‘did not have assets to deploy. Furthermore, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does not have jurisdiction in Panama.’
“We do not accept this response by our government that the required assets – including US Naval salvage divers and sonar do not exist and/or cannot be deployed to nearby Panama. The families of the missing women – both retired public-school teachers – are on the ground in Panama anxiously awaiting the return of their loved ones. Panamanian authorities have been conducting a round-the-clock air, sea, and land search– aware of the aircraft’s last-known coordinates– but need help in locating the wreckage. 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 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.
“Both the Borries family – U.S. military veterans among them – and the Velleman family implore their government to send the personnel and equipment required to bring these citizens home.”