Waukesha man who survived plane crash in Panama recalls tragedy, rescue and support

NOW: Waukesha man who survived plane crash in Panama recalls tragedy, rescue and support

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- It's been just over a year since a Waukesha couple was aboard a plane that crashed into the ocean off the coast of Panama. Two women on board died.

Debra Velleman and her husband Anthony lived in Waukesha for several years before retiring in Panama.

Anthony & Debra Velleman

On Sunday, March 5, people gathered on a beach in Panama as part of an event Anthony organized to thank those who helped him and his family after the plane crash.

On Jan. 3 of last year, a small plane carrying four people and a pilot crashed into the ocean off the coast of Panama.

"I had been in the water over two hours, unbeknownst to me, with my broken arm, my busted shoulder, my broken clavicle," Anthony told CBS 58 in an interview over video call.

Anthony Velleman of Waukesha, a friend and the pilot survived the crash and were rescued thanks to a fisherman named Daniel spotting them.

At a gathering in Panama Sunday, Anthony once again expressed gratitude.

"There's no doubt in my mind [Daniel] saved our lives," Velleman told the people gathered.

Anthony's wife, Debra, and Sue Borries of Teutopolis, Ill., died in the crash.

Their bodies were trapped in the plane. The Velleman family pressed U.S. authorities to send resources to help.

"I just couldn't wrap my head around either one, anyone, for that matter, anyone, but in this case, Deb and Sue, being in that plane forever," Velleman said.

In the end, a Wisconsin-based organization called Bruce's Legacy was able to locate and help recover the bodies nearly a month later, giving the families closure.

This weekend, Anthony thanked those that saved his life, helped recover Debra and Sue, and supported him. He plans on continuing to split time between Panama and Wisconsin, places he and Debra called home.

"[Debra was] the kindest, sweetest, most intelligent person that I had the pleasure of being with for any time, but we were together nearly 50 years," Velleman said when asked how he wants his wife to be remembered. "She was a good person, a very good person, and she was everything to me."

Anthony said he is also grateful for the efforts of people in Wisconsin who called government officials to try to help, though expressed disappointment at what he called a lack of support from the U.S. government during the recovery efforts in January of 2022.

Velleman said he did receive a personal phone call from Governor Tony Evers while he was recovering from the plane crash in a Wisconsin hospital. Velleman later thanked the governor in person at an event last year.

Share this article: