Rescuers, Mississippi locals behind monument at Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash site

Tom Wills returns to scene of Southern Rock tragedy he covered in 1977

Judy Van Zant, the widow of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, led the unveiling of a seven-ton granite monument to the six who died and 20 injured in the crash of the band’s charter airplane 42 years ago.

GILLSBURG, Miss. – Judy Van Zant, the widow of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, led the unveiling of a seven-ton granite monument to the six who died and 20 injured in the crash of the band’s charter airplane 42 years ago.

A crowd of devoted fans turned out earlier this month to see this brand new tribute to Jacksonville's own rock superstars.

Millions know the names of our hometown boys, the Southern Rock band that was flying high in 1977 when its charter plane went down in a wooded area of southern Mississippi swamp en route to the band’s next show in at Baton Rouge.

The music stopped on Oct. 20, 1977. In addition to Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister, singer Cassie Gaines, assistant tour manager Dean Kilpatrick and the pilot and co-pilot died that night. 

Twenty others were badly injured, including two of the band's other founding members, guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington.

Despite broken ribs, drummer Artemis Pyle managed to make it out of the woods and go for help.

The next day I went to the scene with a Channel 4 photographer and reported the magnitude of the scene: a piece of the wing torn away from the plane sitting against a tree, the engine lying at the base of the same tree and the fuselage around a corner.

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Earlier this month, a local guide, Bobby McDaniel, one of the rescuers that night, drove us off the highway into those same woods. At one point we parked and walked a dry creek bed the rest of the way to the crash site where I had stood amid the wreckage.

McDaniel remembers it well.

“The plane came right down through those trees and broke apart. It’s eerie being back here after 42 years in this same spot where that plane broke apart,” McDaniel said. “I'll tell you what touched the most that day were the personal belongings of the people on the plane, both those who died and those who survived, scattered all over the woods here. There was a Teddy bear on the ground.”

It's clear this tragedy has not been forgotten. I know I haven’t forgotten it and don't believe I ever will.

McDaniel was 22 years old at the time and had Civil Air Patrol training in first aid and rescue. His memories are still vivid. He said he reached the woods about an hour and a half after the crash and the rescue effort was not going well.

“Tractors were pulling the ambulances out of the creek,” he said. “They were just trying to find another way to come and I brought the ambulances in on the south way, but they could not get to the site. The ambulances turned around. So I bailed out and went to the crash site.”

Without ambulances at the scene, he and the other rescuers had to use pickup trucks to transport the injured. What they found in the wreckage was carnage and chaos.

“All of the seats they were buckled into were broken loose in the back of the plane, and the couches and the nicer chairs were in the front where the band was sitting,” McDaniel said. “All of this stuff, the luggage, the seats, the people all fell on top of you -- people in the front of the plane. So you'd move a seat, move a suitcase and there was a person. You'd get it out and move another seat and a guitar and another person. And we were handing them out through the crack in the plane. And that's where I was, trying to lay them out. The doctor was doing triage, trying to make them comfortable. And, of course, we had deceased that we were putting over in another area.” 

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McDaniel and the other rescuers had no idea who they were rescuing.

“Did not know who was in the plane. Did not know the size of the plane. I thought I was looking for a Cessna, much less a 48-passenger plane that was built for Eastern Airlines,” he said. “The plane had been re-configured into a tour plane with couches and such as that, and with 26 people aboard.”

McDaniel said he was a fan of Skynyrd and had seen them in concert, but still didn’t know at first that it was their plane.

“I was seeing some long-haired young people that looked a lot like me on the ground and I said, 'These may be a rock 'n' roll band,” he said. “I did my stuff and as I was walking out I was told it was Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

McDaniel doesn’t remember being horrified. 

“I was zoned in. I knew what my job was and that was all I was concentrating on. And I had seen some tragedies before -- probably prepared me for it,” he said. “I got kind of away from the site (and) it really kind of hit me. And from the night I walked out, October 20th, it was 15 years before I set foot back out here.”

These woods have become a mecca for Skynyrd fans who found their way here on their own to pay their own personal tributes. On our visit, we saw roses that were just placed at the site. And fans continue to find pieces of the wrecked plane, as we did during our visit.. I put them back where they were found.

The roses we saw were brought by Christina Anderson, a fan who lives in Liberty, Mississippi, 14 miles away. She brings them every month.

“It was a really great band,” Anderson said. “My thing that I do -- and it’s been put on Facebook, so I guess I can tell you -- is I would bring two beers, Budweiser, and I would drink and open one and I would leave another for Ronnie and the boys. That's my tribute.”

The unveiling of the monument brought me back to the site after four decades. I asked McDaniel: “Why now?”

“For the last 8 or 10 years we'd come back here on October 20th and reminisce a little bit,” he said. “Most of us were rescuers. And last year, we were sitting around on October 20th and we said, 'You know what? All these people want to know where the site is. We ought to put a road sign out there, out on the road. And the road sign turned into a bigger sign. And we put a GoFundMe page out to help us raise money and the Skynyrd fans just came alive. The current band contributed very well, local people contributed, and the next thing you know, we got a monument.

On the back of the monument is an image of the band in their happier times. Behind them is an image of the plane that wound up carrying them to tragedy. 

Etched on the base of that granite panel is that the opening line of the band’s iconic song, "Freebird."

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?

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.