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Family joins Panama plane crash survivor

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A 12-year-old California girl who survived a plane crash in Panama this weekend was reunited there with her family Wednesday after a grueling three-day search-and-rescue effort in rugged, rain-swept mountains.

Francesca Lewis was recovering at a private hospital in David, the capital of western Chiriqui province, when her mother, father, uncle and sister arrived at her bedside from the United States. She had suffered hypothermia, bruises and muscle injuries, hospital officials said.

Francesca was vacationing with a friend and the friend's father when their Cessna 172 aircraft crashed near the slopes of Baru volcano Sunday. It wasn't until Tuesday that rescuers found Francesca, as well as the bodies of prominent Santa Barbara businessman Michael Klein, 37, his daughter Talia, 13, and Panamanian pilot Edwin Lasso, 23.

The girl's condition was listed as stable Wednesday, and doctors said she was able to walk. Although she was photographed at her rescue wearing a neck brace and a bandage on her arm, doctors said X-rays showed that she had suffered no fractures.

Omar Smith, operations chief of Panama's civil protection service, said medical officials hoped to release Francesca this morning.

The cause of the crash is under investigation, but officials believe it may have been weather-related. Chiriqui has been lashed by storms and heavy rain since Friday, Smith said. Fog and freezing temperatures have accompanied the rain, and northern parts of the province have had heavy flooding.

The girl's recollection of events leading to the crash was limited, officials said.

"She lost consciousness, and she only remembers [the plane] falling into a cloud, and then she saw trees," physician Samuel Catta told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

Francesca and the Kleins had left Santa Barbara on Dec. 20 to visit Klein's eco-resort on Islas Secas off Panama's west coast, and they planned to return home in time for Christmas Eve, said Kurt Benjamin, a colleague of Klein and vice president of business development for Pacificor in Santa Barbara.

Klein apparently had been planning to take aerial photos of Baru volcano Sunday, but the small plane lost communication with the control tower shortly before noon, Smith said. Authorities launched a full search of the area several hours later.

About 50 rescue workers and volunteers searched day and night through the lush, mountainous terrain, where roughly three cases a year of lost U.S. and European travelers occur. As the search entered its final day Christmas morning, Klein's family issued two desperate appeals to the public, offering a $25,000 reward to anyone who could find the plane and its passengers.

The bodies were found in the afternoon in a difficult-to-reach area on the southern slope of the volcano, Smith said. When Francesca was found alive and conscious, 20 additional workers were dispatched to try to rescue her.

Kim Klein, Talia's mother and Michael Klein's former wife, had been in Panama since Monday morning helping search, said Sherry Klinger, Talia's great-aunt.

"This is just so tragic," Kim Klein said in a prepared statement Wednesday. "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."

Michael Klein was chief executive of Pacificor and also managed the company's investment strategy and operations, which deals with distressed hedge funds. On Wednesday, the company put into place Klein's succession plan, promoting senior portfolio manager Andy Mitchell to the top spot, Benjamin said.

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.

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