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Santa Barbara Girl Flown to Safety After Rescue from Panama Crash Site

{mosimage}Francesca Lewis, 12, at left with sister Rosi, survived a weekend plane crash that killed Santa Barbaran Michael Klein, his 13-year-old daughter and the trio's pilot.

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A 12-year-old Santa Barbara girl, the only survivor of a weekend plane crash on a remote mountainside in Panama, was airlifted to a hospital Wednesday morning. Rescue workers had to trek more than five hours through rough jungle terrain to deliver the Crane Country Day School seventh-grader to safety and reunite her with her anxious family.

News reports said the helicopter carrying Francesca "Frankie" Lewis touched down shortly after noon local time at a public hospital in David, capital of Chiriqui province, 30 miles east of the crash site. At her parents’ request, the reports said, an ambulance then drove her to a private facility nearby.

Earlier Wednesday, Francesca’s mother, Valerie Lewis, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that her daughter was able to walk, but apparently suffered a broken arm and hypothermia.

"My husband spoke to her by phone this morning," Lewis told The Associated Press. "She sounded good. She just said ‘Hi, daddy. See you soon.’"

News reports said Francesca was found Tuesday walking near the wreckage of the small plane, at an altitude of some 3,500 feet on the jungle-covered flanks of the Baru volcano, about 270 miles west of Panama City.

The Sunday crash of the Cessna 172 killed Santa Barbara hedge fund owner Michael Klein, 37; his 13-year-old daughter, Talia; and Panamanian charter pilot Edwin Lasso, 23. The plane was on a 45-minute sightseeing flight when it vanished from radar around noon Sunday. The flight originated on Isla Secas, an eco-resort island owned by Klein, chief executive officer of Pacificor LLC of Santa Barbara.

The cause of the crash was not known, but witnesses reported seeing the plane flying at a very low altitude about midday Sunday amid buffeting winds.

Francesca’s recollection of the events leading to the crash was limited, according to news reports.

"She lost consciousness, and she only remembers (the plane) falling into a cloud, and then she saw trees," physician Samuel Catta told AP.

Frankie, according to her older sister Rose in an e-mail from Panama, is an active and adventurous 12-year old who loves volleyball and interacting with people.

“She is the most caring person I have ever met,” said Rose, who predicts that her younger sister will be a teacher “or someone who interacts with younger kids because she loves little kids.”

Klein’s former wife, Kim Klein, said Klein and the girls were expected to return to Santa Barbara on Christmas Eve after a holiday weekend on Isla Secas. The girls are close friends and classmates at Crane.

Crane headmaster Joel Weiss e-mailed the Montecito school’s parent network Tuesday afternoon, thanking the close-knit community for its outpouring of offers of help since the plane went missing Sunday.

"Amazingly, Frankie Lewis has been found alive in the wreckage," Weiss said in the statement. "However, I am very deeply saddened by the news that she was the only survivor of the crash. I know I speak for us all when I say that our thoughts and our hearts are with the Klein family in this time of tragic loss."

On Wednesday, Weiss shared a message from Kim Klein.

"I am completely traumatized. This is just so tragic," she said in an e-mail from Panama. "My daughter was such a beautiful and amazing child, and she was the greatest joy and love of my life. This is something that no mother should have to endure. Michael was such a loving and wonderful father to Talia and I am so sad that they are both gone.

"I am so grateful that Frankie is OK and with her family. That is truly a miracle and a blessing."

News reports said about 60 rescuers — including members of Panama’s national police and civil defense agency — four helicopters and two planes were involved in the hunt for the missing aircraft. Kim Klein had offered a $25,000 reward to hasten the search.

A 17-member rescue team, which included a paramedic, reached the wreckage about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and a shelter was established to treat Francesca overnight. Initial search attempts were hampered by poor communication systems and bad weather. Since Friday, the area has been lashed by storms and heavy rains, with fog and freezing temperatures.

News reports said Francesca had to be lowered slowly from the volcano to a spot where a helicopter could ferry her to a hospital, where her family and a medical team were waiting.

Klein, who graduated from UCSB at age 17, started MIBEK Corp., a developer of financial analysis software that he sold in 1992. He then founded Transoft Networks Inc., a leading supplier of storage area networking software that Hewlett Packard purchased in 1999, according to the Pacificor Web site.

He then became president and chief executive officer of eGroups Inc., the world’s largest group e-mail communication service. Yahoo! Inc. acquired eGroups for $450 million in 2000. Now known as Yahoo! Groups, the service has more than 100 million users globally, Pacificor’s Web site says.

Klein became Pacificor’s largest investor in 1999, was elevated to CEO and president in 2001, and acquired the firm outright in 2002. He also acted as its chief investment officer, according to Pacificor’s Web site.

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