1977 – Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines of Lynyrd Skynyrd are killed when their rented plane crashes in a swamp near Gillsburg, Miss.
20 October 1977, 6:55 pm. While flying from Greenville, South Carolina to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s chartered Convair 240 aircraft crashed in a Mississippi swamp. The plane was carrying 24 passengers and 2 crew members. The band members on board were: Allen Collins, Cassie Gaines, Steve Gaines, Leslie Hawkins, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant, and Leon Wilkeson. Rumour has it that several of those involved had misgivings about flying on the plane, and that they planned to get rid of it once they had reached Baton Rouge. Cassie Gaines lacked confidence in the aircraft and Jo Jo Billingsley (who was not on the plane) had a dream that the plane had crashed. She called Allen Collins, asking him to tell the others not to get on it. Stage manager, Clayton Johnson, remarked afterwards that, “There had been a lot of mistrust of that airplane since we chartered it.”
The following account is from keyboardist Billy Powell:
“The right engine started sputtering, and I went up to the cockpit. The pilot said they were just transferring oil from one wing to another, everything’s okay. Later, the engine went dead. Artimus [Pyle] and I ran to the cockpit. The pilot was in shock. He said, ‘Oh my God, strap in.’ Ronnie [Van Zant] had been asleep on the floor and Artimus got him up and he was really pissed. We strapped in and a minute later we crashed. The pilot said he was trying for a field, but I didn’t see one. The trees kept getting closer, they kept getting bigger. Then there was a sound like someone hitting the outside of the plane with hundreds of baseball bats. I crashed into a table; people were hit by flying objects all over the plane. Ronnie was killed with a single head injury. The top of the plane was ripped open. Artimus crawled out the top and said there was a swamp, maybe alligators. I kicked my way out and felt for my hands — they were still there. I felt for my nose and it wasn’t, it was on the side of my face. There was just silence. Artimus and Ken Peden and I ran to get help, Artimus with his ribs sticking out.”
Artimus Pyle remembers strapping Ronnie Van Zant into his seat and trying to put a velvet cushion under his head. They crashed into a swamp in McComb, Mississippi, and the plane was destroyed by the impact. There was no fire. Two crew members and four of the passengers were killed; twenty others were injured. Those who were not killed lay for hours, awaiting rescue. Pyle, despite suffering a broken sternum and several broken ribs, ran for help. About a mile away, he came upon a farmhouse and ran, raving, towards it. The farmer, Johnny Mote, frightened by Pyle’s dirty, bloody appearance, mistook him for a madman and shot him in the shoulder. (The shotgun blast was not fatal.) Once Mote realized that Pyle was a refugee of the plane crash, he called for help.
Read the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) report about the cause and damage of the crash.
The effect of the crash was devastating. In addition to general cuts and bruises…
Allen Collins suffered two cracked neck vertebrae and an arm amputation was recommended. (His father refused.)
Leslie Hawkins endured a concussion, broke her neck in three places, and had facial injuries which required plastic surgery. She was partially paralyzed and suffered permanent neurological damage.
Billy Powell sustained severe facial lacerations. (Powell was the only band member well enough, on crutches and with his face in bandages, to attend the funerals of those who perished.)
Artimus Pyle suffered a broken sternum and several broken ribs.
Gary Rossington broke both legs and both arms and sustained a concussion.
Leon Wilkeson broke his jaw and had most of his teeth knocked out, suffered a crushed chest (with a punctured lung), almost needed an arm amputated, and he sustained internal injuries. (Wilkeson reportedly coded at the hospital and had to be revived.)
Those were the fortunate ones.
In addition to the pilot (Walter McCreary) and co-pilot (William Gray), Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and Dean Kilpatrick (Skynyrd’s road manager) were killed.
According to Billy Powell on VH1’s “Behind The Music”, Cassie Gaines’s throat had been cut from ear to ear and she bled to death in his arms. He also stated that Ronnie Van Zant had sustained a severe head injury, which was the cause of his death. Powell’s account of events scandalized many associated with the band, and was contradicted by Artimus Pyle and Judy Van Zant Jenness (Ronnie’s widow). In 1998, the widow Van Zant posted Ronnie’s autopsy on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s website to prove the truth of his injuries.
Steve Gaines was 28. Cassie Gaines and Ronnie Van Zant were 29.
Steve and Cassie Gaines were laid to rest on 23 October 1977 in Orange Park, Florida. A private ceremony was held for Ronnie on 25 October. Among those who attended were Ed King and Bob Burns (both former members of Skynyrd), Billy Powell, Dickey Betts (Allman Brothers Band), Charlie Daniels, Al Kooper (founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears), and Tom Dowd (producer/engineer who had worked on the Manhattan Project). Merle Haggard’s “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” and David Allan Coe’s “Another Pretty Country Song” were played. Charlie Daniels read a poem, and with .38 Special, performed “Amazing Grace”. Ronnie Van Zant was buried to the left of Steve Gaines and in front of Cassie. Van Zant’s and the Gaines’ resting places were moved in 2000 after Ronnie’s and Steve’s grave sites were broken into and vandalized. The monuments (shown below) remain as memorials for the fans.
The band’s fifth album, Street Survivors, was released three days before the crash. The cover showed the band engulfed in flames. After the crash, the album was pulled from stores and re-released with new artwork, showing the band against a plain black background. Street Survivors went on to become the band’s second platinum album, and reached #5 on the U.S. album chart. The single “What’s Your Name” reached #13. Also included on the album is the song “That Smell”: “The smell of death surrounds you. The angel of darkness is upon you…”
Author’s note: What I find eerie is that, on the original cover of Street Survivors, Steve Gaines is positioned in the middle, consumed by flames. He perished in the crash. Next to him are Ronnie Van Zant (who also perished) and Leon Wilkeson (who seems to have received the worst injuries of the survivors and reportedly coded at one point). As you fan out, the injuries seem arguably less life-threatening – the next two are Gary Rossington and Artimus Pyle, then Allen Collins and Billy Powell – who sustained “merely” facial lacerations and general cuts and bruises. Cassie Gaines, not in the photo, but “close” to Steve because they were siblings, also perished in the crash.
In 1986, Allen Collins crashed his car while driving drunk near his home in Jacksonville, Florida. His girlfriend was killed and he was paralyzed from the waist down. He died in 1990 from pneumonia, which was a result of decreased lung capacity from the paralyzation. He was 37.
During the early ’90s, Ed King found Leon Wilkeson on the group’s tour bus, sleeping, but with his throat cut and bleeding. Wilkeson was taken to the hospital and recovered. It is still a mystery as to who was responsible – Ed King blames Wilkeson’s girlfriend-at-the-time. Leon Wilkeson passed away from liver disease in 2001. He was 49.
In 2006, Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The honorees were: Bob Burns, Allen Collins, Steve Gaines, Ed King, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant, and Leon Wilkeson.