Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Piper PA-32-260 Cherokee Six, N5535J: Fatal accident occurred January 03, 2022 in Chame, Panama

National Transportation Safety Board accident number: GAA22WA067

Federal Aviation Administration / International Field Office: Dallas 

Aircraft crashed under unknown circumstances in the water.

Date: 04-JAN-22
Time: 12:35:00Z
Regis#: N5535J
Aircraft Make: PIPER
Aircraft Model: PA32
Event Type: ACCIDENT
Highest Injury: FATAL
Total Fatal: 2
Flight Crew 1 serious
Pax 2 fatal, 2 serious
Aircraft Missing: No
Activity: PERSONAL
Flight Phase: EN ROUTE (ENR)
Operation: 91
Country: PANAMA

The son of Waukesha woman Debra Velleman, who went missing after the plane she was on crashed off the coast of Panama on January 3, says the U.S. government is still refusing to assist in the search for her and a fellow passenger who also remains missing.

Jake Velleman said Friday that the refusal to help find his mother, 70, as well as Sue Borries, 57, of Illinois continues despite the involvement of some members of Congress. He's in Panama assisting with the search.

"We all still have the same assessment of the situation, which is that these are two U.S. citizens. This was a U.S.-registered aircraft manufactured in the United States. The engine was manufactured in the United States. The U.S. has some jurisdictional responsibility," Velleman said in a phone interview Friday.

"But more importantly, these are two U.S. citizens of whom there are two grieving U.S. families in distress and thus far, all I've received from the U.S. Embassy is some information, most of it not actionable — much of it not timely."

Other than providing his father, Anthony, who was also on the plane but survived the crash, a passport to get out of the country, Velleman said "it's pretty quiet" from the U.S. government save for the legislators advocating for the family. That includes Senator Tammy Baldwin and Congressman Scott Fitzgerald from Wisconsin and Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois.

Velleman said the most assistance he and his family have received has been from charitable organizations and "people volunteering their effort on their behalf."

"It's extremely disheartening," Velleman said. "This was last Monday when this occurred. We always hope we never have to reach out for help, especially to our government. I guess I'd always sort of wondered if I ever needed help in times of great need, if my government would be there for me. Thus far the answer here is no they haven't."

Velleman said he hasn't been given a reason for the government's refusal to aid in the search.

"Unless some bean counter has done some cost benefit analysis and said 'This isn't worth us sending even the most minimal of resources', I can't think of what it would be," Velleman said. "Everyone is in agreement these assets exist. Everyone is in agreement that the U.S. government has a responsibility to help its citizens. We don't know what the hold up is."

A call to the U.S. Embassy in Panama went to a busy signal. An email sent to the public affairs section is awaiting a reply. 

Father injured in crash has been medically evacuated to Wisconsin
Anthony Velleman, Jake's father, was medically evacuated out of Panama and arrived in Wisconsin on Thursday evening, according to an email from Albert Lewitinn's, the Velleman family's media contact.

Specifically, Jake Velleman said his father was re-admitted to a hospital in Madison to continue receiving on-going medical treatment. Jake's brother, Josh, who had also been in Panama assisting with the search, traveled back with their father.

Velleman said "this is not a complex, deep sea exploration mission or anything like that" because the plane crashed right off the coast and the coordinates and general area of its location are available.

"What I've been told repeatedly — including these days that I've been out on the beach with binoculars talking to the search and rescue team, speaking with the search and rescue team — they have basically said in confidence 'the day the Americans actually show up to help is the day we find your loved ones,'" Velleman said.

Velleman was scheduled to appear on CNN Friday afternoon to make another plea for the government's help. He said while it's uncomfortable for him to be on camera, he wants closure for his and Borries' family.

Prior to the crash, the Vellemans were spending the winter at their second home in Panama. The couple are originally from Appleton and later moved to Waukesha. In Waukesha, Debra Velleman served as a public school teacher for 40 years.

The couple were celebrating the New Years' weekend on Isla Contadora, off the coast of Panama. A friend, who owns a bed and breakfast on the island, would fly people to and from the island on his small plane, Lewittinn previously said.

The Vellemans were on that plane Jan. 3 returning to the mainland from when the plane, which was piloted by the bed and breakfast owner, crashed.

A social media post from Jake Velleman last week said the plane had experienced an engine failure.

Tony and Deb Velleman (L)

Sue and Dennis Borries (R)

A plane crash in Panama has left two women from Wisconsin missing.

A statement from Jake Velleman, the son of one of the missing women, says five people -- including both of his parents -- were onboard an airplane that suffered an engine failure off the coast of Panama Monday afternoon, January 3.

Three people were rescued, including Velleman's father. 

A widescale search for the remaining two, including Velleman's mother Debra, is ongoing. 

Panama's Civil Aviation Authority said Tuesday the two missing U.S. citizens were aged 57 and 70, but did not identify them.

Searchers in boats and aircraft combed the area off Panama's Punta Chame, south of Panama City. The single-engine, five-seat Piper Cherokee 6 crashed into the ocean Monday. The plane was heading to Chame from Contadora island, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) away.

The statement from Velleman goes on to say, a formal request for a vessel with equipment required to undergo a search for the aircraft has been made to the U.S. government by the Panamanian government. 

"Our families are hopeful that these assets will be quickly located and deployed," stated Velleman.

Read the full statement from Velleman below: 

"My parents and three of their dear friends were aboard an airplane that suffered an engine failure and fell Monday afternoon in the waters off the coast of Panama. My dad, Anthony, and two others were rescued, and my dad is receiving treatment for non-life threatening injuries at Hospital Nacional in Panama City. He is likely to undergo the first of at least two surgeries to repair fractures tomorrow, Friday, January 7th.

A wide scale search by air and water for my mother, Debra, and another passenger, Sue, is continuing. Updates on the effort are being posted to the social media channels of the relevant civil agencies.

Both women are U.S. citizens, and a formal request for a vessel with the specific type of equipment required to undergo a search for the aircraft has been made to the U.S. government by the Panamanian government. Our families are hopeful that these assets will be quickly located and deployed.

My brother, Josh, has joined me in Panama, and we are receiving support from other family members in the United States. On behalf of our entire family, I want to express our sincere appreciation for each and every message of support we have received. Please know that they have all been read. The love and support and prayers 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.

We are further grateful to the many, many friends and community members in Panama - our beloved second home - who have mobilized to provide a wide array of support, from meals, deliveries, medical attention, and supplies to search and recovery support.

Anyone who knows my parents knows that they are a light unto this world. Thank you for your continued prayers, thoughts, and support."

The Civil Aviation Authority (AAC) confirmed the crash into the sea of a Piper PA-32-260 Cherokee Six registered N5535J with five occupants (all Americans) south of the Chame district in the province of Panama Oeste.  Three occupants had already been rescued alive, reported the entity. Their names are Robert Allan Breime, Melissa Sachir, and Anthony Velleman. All were evacuated in a helicopter from the Senan to the Santo Tomás hospital, in the capital city. The authorities suspended the search for the other two people after 6:00 p.m., to resume it this Tuesday. The aircraft had a flight plan for the island to Chame. A source from the AAC confirmed that the pilot had requested permission to land, because the aircraft suffered mechanical issue and could not reach land. At 3 pm yesterday, the aircraft fell into the sea at coordinates 8.59100, -79.74927. The National Aeronaval Service dispatched two boats and an aircraft for rescue work. Civil Aeronautics Search and Rescue Teams also left for the place, as well as units from the Meritorious Fire Department of Panama, Regional of Panama West, who sent to the Punta Chame area ambulances and paramedics.

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