Girl, 12, who was sole survivor of air crash is rescued from jungle

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The Independent US

Fighting heavy rain and swirling winds, rescue workers yesterday embarked on a five-hour trek to bring to safety a 12-year-old American girl who miraculously survived a weekend plane crash in the mountainous jungle terrain of western Panama.

Francesca Lewis was apparently suffering no more than a broken arm and hypothermia, three days after the crash that killed the three other people aboard the light Cessna 172, and that left the aircraft "smashed into pieces" according to an eyewitness.

"My husband spoke to her by phone this morning," Valerie Lewis, the girl's mother, told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from Boquete, a resort village in Chiriqui state. "She sounded good. She just said, 'Hi, daddy. See you soon.'" The girl was found on Christmas Day walking near the plane's wreckage, at an altitude of 3,500ft (1,067m) on the southern slope of the Baru volcano, that rises from the jungle 270 miles west of the capital, Panama City. But 13-year-old Talia Klein, Francesca's close friend, as well as Talia's father, Michael Klein, a prominent businessman from Santa Barbara, California, and the Panamanian pilot, 23-year old Edwin Lasso, all died.

The end of Francesca's ordeal began when 17 rescue workers, among them a paramedic, reached the remote site with food and medicine on Tuesday afternoon. A Panamanian government spokesman said it would take five hours to reach Boquete, where a full medical team was waiting, and where the girl would be reunited with her parents and transferred to hospital.

The exact cause of the crash was unclear last night but was likely to have been bad weather. A local radio report said eyewitnesses saw the Cessna flying at "a very low altitude" in fierce winds on Sunday, around noon, shortly before the crash occurred.

The plane was chartered by Mr Klein, a 37-year-old multimillionaire hedge fund manager, for a flight from Islas Secas, an archipelago eco-park that he owned off Panama's Pacific coast, where he was on a brief pre-Christmas holiday with his daughter and Francesca.

He was apparently planning to take aerial photos of the volcano, before the three were due to return to Santa Barbara on Monday evening. The plane was scheduled to land at Alvaro Berroa airstrip near the town of Volcan at 12:15pm on Sunday, after a 45-minute flight. But it never arrived. Rescuers were sent out and after a 36-hour search found the plane and the bodies of Mr Klein, his daughter and the Panamanian pilot and the still-alive Francesca.

Mr Klein was chief executive of Pacificor, a Santa Barbara-based company that manages several hedge funds. He founded two companies in the 1990s before becoming president of eGroups Inc, then the world's largest group e-mail communication service. The company was bought by the internet search giant Yahoo! in 2000 for $450m (225m) and is now known as Yahoo! Groups.

He was described by colleagues as a brilliant businessman who skipped high school and graduated from university at 17. "He was one of the most interesting people you could ever speak to on a myriad of subjects," Kurt Benjamin, vice-president of business development at Pacificor, told a Los Angeles television station. "He was an unbelievable individual."