Survivors of Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash, families, fans commemorate site

Tom Wills returns to the site of 1977 tragedy to attend unveiling

Tom Wills returns to the site of 1977 tragedy to attend unveiling.

GILLSBURG, Miss. – Earlier this month, 42 years after Lynyrd Skynyrd's chartered Convair CV-300 crashed near Gillsburg, Mississippi, while heading to Baton Rouge for a concert. Six people died; 20 others were injured. Most were members of the iconic Southern Rock band that traced its roots to Jacksonville's Westside.

On Oct. 20, survivors, family members of those who died, some dedicated fans and I returned to a spot near the crash site for the unveiling of a memorial to those who died, to those who lived through it, and to those who rescued them that night more than four decades ago.

I hadn't been there since reporting on the tragedy the day after the crash.

Judy Van Zant, widow of crash victim and Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, raised the curtain on a black granite monument on the roadside about 400 yards from the crash site deep in the dense woods.

Etched in stone, one panel describes the history of the crash: "The plane was doomed. But that autumn day had otherwise been beautiful."

Another panel, titled "Rise of the Simple Man," tells the history of the band that formed out of a group of friends who attended Lee High School.

A third panel tells the story of the rescue. Many of the first responders did not recognize the victims, one of them wondering aloud: "What's a bunch of hippies doing on an airplane? They don't look like they can afford a ticket."

When the brief ceremony ended, Judy was surrounded by Skynyrd fans wanting a picture with her. She said she was determined to accommodate them all.

"I knew the fans were just itching to get up there, so I still haven't read the writing on the front," she said. "I went around and looked at the stuff on the back, but I just felt like the fans needed to get on up there. I'm going to sit down and read it and take my time, so I figured let the fans come up. But it's an emotional thing, it really is, to come back here."

Mississippi rescuers behind monument devoted to band
Skynyrd's final hometown show 
Band talks about future beyond farewell tour
Survivor plays on 'to show everybody our dream came true'
Memories of the man who inspired the name
GALLERY: Lynyrd Skynyrd then and now

Judy told me that these days, the locals' attitudes are vastly different.

"These people have been wonderful," she said. "A lot of them are so affected by what happened in their backyard. You know, I can't imagine. Whether you're a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd or not, you know a famous band crashed in your back yard and people died and people were seriously injured."

Joining the Judy Van Zant at the ceremony was her daughter, Melody, and Melody's two children. Also there was Corrina Gaines, daughter of Steve Gaines, one of the band's guitarists, her two children, and a niece of Cassie Gaines, who was a singer with the band.

Corrina, the only child of Steve and Teresa Gaines, was just a toddler when her dad and her aunt were killed. He was 28. She was 29.

Corrina Gaines said it happened just before her third birthday and she has no memory of her father. She did not think she would ever come to this place.

"I was apprehensive at first," she said. "I don't really think anything about the crash, but everybody told me it was to honor them and it was respectful. Everybody was nice. Judy kind of talked me into it. I thought I should go."

Her mom had told her she was all she had left.

"She never really got over it. It was kind of a thing. She always got into a bad mood every year at this time of year," Corrina said. "You know, they were high school sweethearts. They knew each other since they were really young and it was hard, you know, but we stuck together."

Following the ceremony, Corrina and her son and daughter stood with Judy and her family and took in this special moment that also meant so much to fans.

"It's beautiful. A bit overwhelming," said a disabled veteran and dedicated fan who came from Wisconsin. "It's been very touching, something that's been a long time coming, and I don't they could have done anything better than what they did. It's just gorgeous."

About the Author:

Tom Wills joined Channel 4 in 1975 and has co-anchored Jacksonville's highest-rated evening newscasts for more than 40 years.