ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The band from Jacksonville that took Southern rock to the top of the charts decades ago returned to the First Coast earlier this month to play to a standing-room only crowd of devoted fans.
Who could have foreseen this concert at the St. Augustine Amphitheater 40 years ago when the short life of Lynyrd Skynyrd was believed to have been cut short by a tragic plane crash?
The music did stop the night of Oct. 20, 1977, when the group's chartered plane crashed in a Mississippi swamp while flying to Baton Rouge to play a concert at LSU. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister, singer Cassie Gaines, road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the pilot and copilot were killed. Twenty others were badly injured, including the band's other two founding members, guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington.
Despite having broken ribs, drummer Artimus Pyle managed to walk out of the woods and go for help. One day after the crash, I went to the scene with a Channel 4 photographer.
"You can't even realize, seeing one of these things on television, exactly what a crash of this magnitude looks like," I said on camera at the scene. "That twisted metal back there is the fuselage of the plane."
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board also went to the scene and ultimately concluded the plane crashed because it ran out of fuel.
A few days after the crash, when healing pianist Billy Powell returned home to Jacksonville, I asked him if Skynyrd would continue. His answer was brief: "I don't think so."
In the aftermath of the crash, no one would have disagreed with Powell that Skynyrd was finished. But like the album the band was out touring to promote -- Street Survivors -- it was not. Ten years later, the band was reborn with Johnny Van Zant taking over lead vocals for his brother, Ronnie. Which a core of original members and variety of new talent, Skynyrd has been touring and releasing albums ever since.
Since the tragedy all those years ago, I've come to know the band members not as rock stars, but as everyday people who still have strong ties to Jacksonville.
After their tour bus rolled into St. Augustine for a concert at the amphitheater Oct. 13, I sat down back stage with Gary Rossington, who is now 65. He is instantly recognizable with the long hair he's had since high school and his trademark hat. He shared with me details of that terrible night we'd never heard before.
"I remember waking up and hearing some guys screaming. It was like being in Vietnam, hearing screaming and your brothers in pain, you know," Rossington said. "I thought there was a door on me. I kept yelling for Dean Kilpatrick to get this door off me. I thought he come over and got it off of me, but the doctors told me ... he couldn't have done that physically because he was too hurt, but he did it."
Rossington, the only surviving member of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd band who is still in the band, still has pain in his legs, which were both broken in the crash. His arms and pelvic bone were broken, too.
"The main thing is our hearts were broken. We'd lost our best friends and our band and the guys we grew up with," Rossington said.
Even after four decades, there are nagging questions about who lived and who did not. Everyone around Rossington and Allen Collins died.
"So we wondered, 'Why didn't we go, you know, because we were right next to them,'" Rossington said.
Collins died in 1990, Leon Wilkerson in 2001 and Billy Powell in 2009.
"It's like you shouldn't forget your past, (but) don't worry about the past and go forward," Rossington said. "I'm glad I'm still here, you know? I want to play the music and show everybody that Ronnie and Allen, our dream came true. We want to just keep it going. I think Billy and Leon and the guys who recently have died, they did, too. They just wanted us to play. That's all we know to do anyway. It's such a pleasure to play and see the people."
The band will be in Tallahassee next week, followed by Lakeland and Pembroke Pines. In December, they begin a swing through Latin America and the Caribbean.
Rossington said the band is starting to plan a farewell tour, but that's a year or two away.