Merrill man dies in plane crash

A 24-year old Merrill man studying aviation at a Minnesota college died in a plane crash in Marathon County Wednesday as he was flying home for Thanksgiving.

Family members of Matthew L. Zocher contacted the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department Thursday afternoon when the single engine Diamond DA20 aircraft he was flying from Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn. did not arrive the night before.

According to a news release from the LCSD, his family told investigators that Zocher was supposed to have flown into the Merrill airport Wednesday night and go out with friends. They didn’t realize he never made it to Merrill until he failed to come home Thursday.

Officials at the Mankato airport confirmed that Zocher left in the plane at about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. A check of his cell phone records showed that Zocher sent a text message at 10:38 p.m. while south and west of Medford.

At this point, Taylor County authorities joined the search and Lincoln County Sheriff Jeff Jaeger requested assistance from the Wisconsin DNR. The DNR sent a plane from Oshkosh that had recently been fitted with the latest technology for conducting night searches. The Aspirus MedEvac Helicopter responded to the area of the last cell phone contact and began a search mission in the direction of the Merrill airport. Private planes had already been launched from the Merrill Airport and Merrill Police officers checked fence lines and runways for any sign of the missing plane.

Dispatchers organized ground searchers and put the Corning, Merrill and Pine River fire departments on stand-by as they worked with Air Force Search and Rescue based at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida to try to pin point an area for a ground search.

Just before 5 p.m., the FAA control tower at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport reported they were able to track the flight path of Zocher’s plane from the evening before by reviewing radar records. According to the FAA, the plane flew east from Medford and circled a small airfield outside of Athens before disappearing from the radar screen in the Marathon County Town of Bern near the Lincoln – Taylor and Marathon County borders at 10:47 p.m.

The Marathon County Sheriff’s Department was notified of the possible crash in their county and as deputies responded, the Athens Fire Department requested additional ground crews to begin a search. Corning, Merrill and Pine River firefighters all responded with off road and rescue vehicles to the area of Weiler Road where search crews found the plane and pilot around 8:30 p.m., a short time after beginning a ground search. The wreckage was spread out over roughly an acre of land.

Zocher, who was the only person on board the plane, was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy performed in Madison at the University of Wisconsin Hospital said he died from “tremendous blunt force injuries.”

Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash but the cause of the crash may not be known for weeks or months, they said late last week.

The plane was owned by North Star Aviation in Mankato, which contracts with the aviation students at Minnesota State University for the use and instruction in its airplanes.

Zocher’s obituary appears on page 9.

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