US denies request to help find 2 American women missing after Panama plane crash

ByMeredith Deliso ABCNews logo
Friday, January 14, 2022
2 missing after plane crash off Panama coast
Two American women remain missing more than a week after their plane crashed off the coast of Panama, as their families plead with the United States government for assistance in the recovery effort.

WAUKESHA, Wis. -- Two American women remain missing more than a week after their plane crashed off the coast of Panama, as their families plead with the United States government for assistance in the recovery effort.

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 with their husbands back to Chame after spending New Year's Eve weekend at a bed and breakfast on the Panamanian island Isla Contadora on Jan. 3 when the crash occurred. The small plane, piloted by the owner of the bed and breakfast, 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, though the women have yet to be found despite continued search efforts, according to Albert Lewitinn, a representative for the Velleman family. The women are believed to be in the unrecovered plane wreckage, he said. Sue Borries' husband, Dennis Borries, had traveled back on a different flight.

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, but the request was denied this week due to a lack of assets and jurisdiction, according to a family statement.

The families are continuing to "implore" the U.S. government to send equipment and personnel to aid in the search and recovery effort.

"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," the Borries and Velleman families said in a statement. "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."

ABC News has reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Panama for comment.

The Velleman family has been in touch with two of their Wisconsin representatives, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, as they seek assistance in the search and recovery effort.

Baldwin's office told ABC News it has contacted the Embassy and the State Department "to share our concern that Ms. Vellemen has not yet been located." The office said it has also contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Defense "to urge them to deploy and use any resources that may be available to help in the search effort."

According to Baldwin's office, the U.S. Coast Guard has provided Panamanian authorities with technical modeling to support the search for the aircraft.

"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," Baldwin's office said. "The U.S. Embassy is also maintaining contact with the families of those missing and the Panamanian government throughout this response."

A spokesperson for Fitzgerald's office told ABC News it cannot comment on ongoing casework.

The surviving passengers continue to recover following the crash. Anthony Velleman will travel by air ambulance back to Wisconsin after having spinal surgery in Panama and "will need months of extensive medical care," Lewitinn said.

Meanwhile, the Vellemans' two sons are looking for closure.

"It's been a week, and they are American citizens," Josh Velleman told ABC Milwaukee affiliate WISN from Panama. "I believe the U.S. should do the right thing, bring those Americans home where they belong."

Editor's Note: This story initially said both women's husbands were rescued following the crash. It has been changed to reflect that Sue Borries' husband was not on the flight. The second rescued passenger was unrelated to the two missing women.