Santa Barbara man, his daughter are killed in plane crash in Panama

Times Staff Writer

The bodies of two California residents and the local pilot of a plane that crashed over the weekend in Panama were found Tuesday in rugged mountains after a three-day search, officials said.

Santa Barbara businessman Michael Klein, 37, his daughter Talia, 13, and the small plane’s Panamanian pilot, Edwin Lasso, 23, were found dead in the Central American country’s western province of Chiriqui, said Omar Smith, the chief of the country’s civil protection service.

Francesca Lewis, 12, a friend of Talia Klein’s, survived the crash and was expected to be transported to a local hospital by this morning, Smith said.

She apparently was suffering from hypothermia and multiple traumas, including fractures in her arm, he said.

The plane, a Cessna 172, lost communication with the control tower shortly before noon Sunday as it traveled from Islas Secas, an archipelago owned by Klein off Panama’s Pacific coast, Smith said.


He said Klein was apparently planning to take aerial photos or video of Baru volcano, near the city of Boquete, as the plane traveled toward the Alvaro Berroa runway near the city of Volcan, about 300 miles from Panama City, he said.

The plane was scheduled to land at 12:15 p.m. Sunday, after a 45-minute flight, but it never arrived.

A few hours later, officials began a full search of the area where they believed the plane may have gone down, Smith said.

About 50 rescue workers and volunteers searched day and night through the lush, mountainous terrain of Chiriqui trying to find the plane and its passengers, Smith said.

The bodies were found about 4:30 p.m. in a difficult-to-reach area on the southern slope of the volcano, near the small community of Las Ovejas, near Boquete, he said.

When Francesca was found alive and conscious, 20 additional workers were dispatched to try to rescue her. She was placed under a makeshift shelter because of the terrain and weather conditions, Smith said.

Rescue workers spent hours late Tuesday trying to get her to a local hospital, working through knee-high mud without the assistance of vehicles or horses, he said.

Since Friday, Chiriqui has been lashed by storms and heavy rains, with fog and freezing temperatures, and the northern part of the province has had heavy flooding, Smith said.

Klein, his daughter, and her friend left Santa Barbara on Thursday night to visit Klein’s eco-resort on Islas Secas, with plans to return home in time for Christmas Eve, said Kurt Benjamin, a colleague of Klein’s and vice president of Business Development for Pacificor in Santa Barbara, where Michael Klein was the chief investment officer.

Benjamin said the group was on its way to the city of David, where they were going to spend Sunday night at a coffee farm before flying back to Panama City and then home.

After days of uncertainty, the family issued two urgent appeals to the public Tuesday morning, offering a $25,000 reward to whomever could locate the plane or the passengers, and requesting additional air assistance in the search.

The family learned Tuesday afternoon that Panamanian rescue workers had located three bodies.

Tuesday evening Talia Klein’s grandparents and uncle chartered a plane to go to Panama and join Kim Klein, Talia’s mother and Michael Klein’s ex-wife, who has been in Panama since Monday morning helping in the search, said Sherry Klinger, Talia’s great-aunt.

“This is terrible and traumatic, and I loved them and they are gone,” Kim Klein said in a text message from Panama on Tuesday afternoon.

Officials said the cause of the crash is under investigation, but they believe it may be related to the weather.

Michael Klein founded two companies in the 1990s before becoming president and chief executive of eGroups Inc., which was the world’s largest group e-mail communication service.

Yahoo Inc. bought eGroups for about $430 million in 2000, and it is now known as Yahoo Groups.