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.
One of Baldwin's aides said in an email Tuesday her office had reached out to the embassy in Panama and provided some additional details of the search effort.
John Kraus also said Baldwin had sent a letter to the Coast Guard.
Baldwin wrote in the letter that it was her understanding that the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Coast Guard have been collaborating with the Panamanian government to coordinate efforts in completing the search. She also said in her letter that "per the attached communication from the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Coast Guard is working alongside the National Transportation Safety Board to obtain appropriate search and rescue equipment."
"The safety of U.S. citizens abroad is of critical importance to me and I would value you noting my interest in this matter and keeping me informed of the efforts underway to ensure that Ms. Velleman is found. Please keep my office advised as to the status of this critical situation, and any information that may be shared at this time regarding the efforts undertaken by the U.S. Coast Guard, State Department, NTSB, or other interagency partners will be greatly appreciated," Baldwin said.
Kelli Liegel, a press secretary for Fitzgerald's office, said in an email that his 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.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waukesha woman still missing after plane crash off Panama coast