Four die in single-engine plane crash east of Lake Tahoe Airport
Three men and a woman died Friday when the single-engine propeller plane in which they were flying took a dive, crashed into several pine trees and exploded into flames about a half a mile east of Lake Tahoe Airport’s runway.
Four thick pine trees were snapped in half, one of which bears the imprint of the Piper Malibu’s propeller.
“We’re still attempting to verify the identities of the people,” said El Dorado County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Watson. “We’re expecting to release their names sometime this week. It’s a matter of obtaining dental records and medical records to make the necessary identifications.”
Airport officials said one of the men was a “well-known and well-liked” South Shore resident. Names of the individuals are being withheld until identification and notification can be completed.
Marc Murphy, an air traffic controller working when the crash occurred, said the plane did not issue a distress call. The six-seater departed from Lake Tahoe Airport at 3:45 p.m. and flew one-half mile southeast of the airport before it crashed, about three minutes later. The sky was cloudy with scattered showers at the time the plane went down.
As the plane plummeted toward the ground, it clipped a 90-foot pine tree beforecrashing in a vacant lot in behind two homes on Acoma Circle and Semat Street.
“I saw the plane crash. I saw it all happen,” said Danny Mullinix, 29. “That engine was loud and working strong until the end.”
Mullinix, who lives on Semat Street, said he looked out his bedroom window and saw the plane come into the tree at an angle with its roof hitting one tree and its propeller, another.
“It broke the plane in half,” he said. “It exploded on impact. There was fire and another explosion about a minute and a half later. There’s no way in hell they were going to survive that.”
Mullinix said the impact knocked pictures off the walls of his house. In shock, he called 911 then went outside to the fight the fire with a garden hose.
“I was hysterical,” he said. “I was telling myself to calm down and I couldn’t do it. I almost got sick from my heart racing so much.”
Fuel from the plane burned for about 15 minutes after the crash. Flames burned as high as 70 feet up pine trees in the area, but the blaze was controlled quickly with a mixture of foam and water.
“It was not a pretty scene,” said Lake Valley firefighter Jim Poell. “One of those ugly things you don’t want to talk about. Fuel did spray out and spread, causing the majority of the fire, but within 5 to 10 minutes we had it knocked down.”
Lake Valley firefighters and Lake Tahoe Airport fire crews worked on the blaze.
Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board officials arrived on the scene early Friday evening to examine the wreckage and to remove the charred bodies. NTSB officials also investigated the scene Saturday afternoon. Officials could not be reached for comment Sunday.
“It could have been so many things. It’s a difficult thing to say,” Murphy said. “It could have been a weather factor or a gust of wind; all I’d be is speculating.”
Murphy said the Lake Tahoe airport control tower Friday aided 41 actions that involved either landing or take off. At time the Piper Malibu took flight, several other aircraft had not been permitted to fly because of weather conditions, Murphy said.
But for small, privately owned planes like the Piper Malibu, the weather conditions were good enough that the decision to fly was left up to the pilot.
“It’s their discretion at that point,” Murphy said. “It’s legal for them to do it.”
Assistant Airport Manager Janis Brand said Allegiant Air and charter planes were held on the Tarmac for an hour while the airport fire crew responded to the crash.
Brand said the airport has not had a crash since 1994. In July of that year, in two separate accidents, seven people died within a three week time period.
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