Four South Lake Tahoe residents identified after fiery plane crash |

Four South Lake Tahoe residents identified after fiery plane crash

Four South Lake Tahoe residents identified Wednesday at the victims of a fiery plane crash were headed south to enjoy Labor Day weekend when the tragedy occured.

Dental records and other means were needed to confirm the identifies of Jeff Needham, the 43-year-old pilot of the single-propeller Piper Malibu; his wife Maria Needham, 30; Marc Michelsen, 48; and Todd Johnson, 27.

The six-seater plane left Lake Tahoe Airport at 3:48 p.m. Friday afternoon and was headed south when, three minutes into the flight, about a half mile from the runway, it turned east and went into a dive. The aircraft clipped a 90-foot pine before it slammed into a cluster of trees on a vacant lot at the corner of Washoan Boulevard and Acoma Circle. The aircraft burst into flames upon impact just feet away from two homes.

Tom Hill, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Deputy and acting coroner on the case, said all four people died instantly.

Needham, owner of Cell Com, a telecommunication business based on the Nevada side of the lake, intended first to fly his plane to Las Vegas where he planned to drop Michelsen and Johnson. They reportedly were en route to Arizona where they were to spend Labor Day weekend with friends.

Needham and his wife then expected to fly from Las Vegas to San Diego to visit family members.

Needham was an experienced pilot, having flown for at least 15 years, as was Michelsen, owner of a construction company, who had logged more than 700 hours behind a yoke.

Marc Murphy, an air traffic controller working the tower when the plane crashed, said several other planes were not allowed to take off when Needham did because of weather conditions.

But for small, privately owned planes like the Piper Malibu, he said, conditions were good enough that the decision to fly was left up to the pilot. The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department reported that the sky was cloudy and there were rain squalls Friday afternoon.

The crash is being investigated by National Transportation and Safety Board and as of Wednesday they had not commented or issued a report on the matter.

“Marc is my youngest son,” Gary Michelsen said. “I can’t talk about it long, I get too emotional.”

“Todd was one of the boys who worked for my son.”

Gary Michelsen said that he knew his son was questioning the weather conditions a few hours before he planned to fly with Needham.

“He changed his mind. He said three or four hours before he was going to drive because of the weather, but I didn’t talk to him,” the father said. “I’m not sure if it was a malfunction, but that wouldn’t have happened to an experienced pilot. Maybe it was overloaded, it was full of gas. I’ll have to wait for a report.”

Needham and Michelsen were good friends. People close to the two men said they worked hard, but they also took time to enjoy life.

“He died going to play,” said Doug Maselli, a friend of Michelsen’s since the sixth grade. “He loved to have fun. There was a lot of joy in that man. That guy was probably the most wonderful person I know.”

Johnson was an employee of Michelsen’s construction company.

“I actually knew Todd pretty well,” said Pamela Falk, owner of Kingsbury Photo. “He was one of the Fargo boys, a whole group of guys from Fargo, N.D., who live in Tahoe. He came out to visit them and stayed in Tahoe.”

Falk said Todd had worked for Marc for the two years he lived in the Lake Tahoe Basin as a handyman of sorts and that he had a 9-year-old daughter in North Dakota.

A service for Michelsen has been scheduled for Saturday.

Services for the others are pending.

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