Most Of The Band Did Not Want To Board The Plane, But Band Leader Ronnie Van Zant Overruled And forced Them To Go
Ronnie Van Zant was just more than the band’s main songwriter, frontman, and singer. He was known as “Papa Ronnie”. When he was sober, he was a fair and kind person. Willing to lend a hand and stick by his bandmates, he was hard to beat when standing by your side. But sadly when he drank, which was quite often, his demeanor and character qualities changed drastically. Violent, wild, and belligerent, Ronnie was a force to be reckoned with.
On several occasions, the latter shined through. On one occasion after a show, he approached Billy Powell who was the band’s keyboard player, and punched him so hard in the mouth he knocked his two front teeth out. The reason behind this? Billy had taken too long on his intro to the song “Free Bird” and that didn’t set well with Ronnie. On another occasion, while reportedly on a drunken rage, he even slashed the hands of Gary Rossington, his best friend and guitarist, with a broken beer bottle.
Everyone was afraid of riding on this plane. Cassie Gaines, Steve Gaines’s sister who were both bound for death in the crash, would routinely ride on the equipment bus rather than the plane. Small and cramped, it still felt better than lift-off of the Convair CV-240. Artimus Pyle was also notoriously outspoken against the plane and on several occasions would take buses to shows. One band member, JoJo Billingsly, was not on the flight. She was sick and would meet up with the band in Arkansas to continue the tour.
There were 26 people on that fateful flight. Two of them were crew members, pilot Walter McReary and co-pilot William Gray, the rest were band members and roadies. At the beginning of the flight, all was well, amid high tensions. Everyone on the flight, except for Ronnie Van Zant, was feeling uneasy and restless. The reason is that just a few short days before some of the band members had reported seeing sparks a large as 10ft shooting out of the right engine.
The flight was going good so far and other than Ronnie getting severely intoxicated while on the flight, all seemed to be setting up to be another routine flight. A little after the two-hour mark, however, events started to unfold that would soon make history. Marc Frank, a 24-year-old roadie traveling with the band, noticed what seemed to be fuel spewing from the right engine. Without wanting to cause alarm he thought to himself that maybe the pilots were trying to transfer fuel from one engine to another.
Soon after the plane would begin to jerk and shake violently. That’s when most of the sober members of the band saw that the right propeller was no longer working. Terror soon engulfed the cabin of the plane and the pilots were frantically trying to radio local Houston Air Traffic Control, stating they had a fuel issue and were most likely going to have to make a emergency landing. As soon as it seemed that the worst of the flight was passing, the true nightmare was about to set in for Lynyrd Skynyrd and the crew aboard.
The Left Engine Would Fail, And The Plane Would Glide For Several Thousand Feet
Pilots Walter McCreary and William Gray were fully aware of a fuel shortage before the flight took off. There is some speculation as to why the second engine had ultimately failed. Some blame it on the plane’s age and poor design, weighing in on its smaller fuselage and compact wingspan. However, it is believed that the pilots were trying to transfer oil from one engine to another when they accidentally jettisoned the fuel instead. A costly mistake at 9,000ft or so.
Band members Artimus Pyle and Billy Powell entered the cockpit to get an idea of what was happening. It is reported that the pilots whose eyes were full of terror, told them to go back to their seats and prepare for impact. The band buckled in. Ronnie Van Zant, drunk and laying in the middle of the aisle, simply pulled himself together, sat up, and quietly chose a seat up front. The pilots would have to make an emergency landing. Marc Frank recalled hearing both engines on the plane then within a matter of minutes, just air passing over the cabin.
Losing daylight, the pilots desperately looked for an open field or some kind of saving grace. With the tree tops approaching fast and just eight miles short of the air strip, the plane was headed for a Mississippi swamp and nothing could be done to save them now. The plane finally slammed into the earth, and Billy Powell recalls saying, “We hit the trees at approximately 90 mph. It felt like being hit with baseball bats in a steel garbage can with the lid on. The tail section broke off, the cockpit broke off and buckled underneath, then both wings broke off. The fuselage turned sideways, and everybody was hurled forward.”
Marc Frank remembers seeing complete and total despair. The plane had completely disintegrated. The only thing left was a trail of debris and people. All of the seats were ripped from the frame of the plane, landing in the front section of the crash. Suffocating the people on the bottom from the sheer weight. The cockpit, tail, and wings completely ripped apart and the remaining cab lay desolate, in the shape of an L. The plane was simply not built well enough to even remotely handle the impact from the pine trees at roughly 90 mph. Totaled, decimated, and left for dead. A tragic scene no person would ever wish to see or soon forget.
The pilots were still in their seats, but were laying upside down in nearby trees. One of them being completely decapitated. Ronnie had died instantly upon impact, his head slamming into a tree. Dean Kilpatrick, the band’s manager, lay dead and covered in blood. He had been impaled by a part of the fuselage and it pushed through his body and projected out of his back. Steve Gaines was killed instantly upon impact and his sister Cassie Gaines perished as well. Laying on the ground, still alive for only a moment, to slowly bleed to death.
Powell’s nose had been nearly ripped from his face after crashing head first through a table. Artimus Pyle emerged with several broken ribs, and bleeding everywhere you could. Marc Frank was beaten terribly and was also covered in lacerations and blood. Everyone just stood there helpless. Crying, praying, and counting the dead to see who they would never hug, play music with, and enjoy company with again. All reality had been broken and none of the surviving members would ever be the same – or view life the same again.
Artimus Pyle, Marc Frank, And Ken Peden Go Searching For Help
With the dust settled from a plane crash that would make a small Mississippi town famous, everything that surrounded the few conscious and able survivors were completely horrific and getting darker by the second. Deceased people hanging from trees, the other survivors moaning for help of any kind, and completely surrounded by a black swamp whose canopy is blocking the only light that is trying so desperately to shine through. At this point, for Artimus Pyle, Marc Frank, and Ken Peden, the only sensible thing left to do was to leave certain death at the crash site, for uncertainty in the swamp.
As the three marched on, feet soaking wet from the water, all odds seemed stacked against the trio. Tremendous physical pain overwhelmed the group as did mental exhaustion. Especially Artimus, who had three broken ribs and multiple large cuts. The will to carry on was strong, however, Pyle being a US Marine, would live out the phrase “Semper Fidelis” which means always faithful. A little after an hour of trudging through a creek – and at one point burrowing underneath a barbed wire fence – they found themselves staring at a small, dim light in the distance. Shining from what seemed to be a small house on a dairy farm.
That farm belonged to a young dairy farmer named Johnny Mote. The 22-year-old had been outside bailing hay in the twilight when he heard the crash in the distance, which he assumed was “a car skidding in gravel.” But after seeing helicopter searchlights, he started to assume it was a jailbreak instead. Mote hopped into his pick-up to get back to his house, told his wife to get back in the house, then proceeded to grab his gun and stand guard. Pyle, Frank, and Peden were met with hostility when they finally came up to Mote. Mote fired a warning shot in the air. The guys hit the dirt and yelling out with what they had left “Hey! I don’t know who you think we are but we were on a plane and the plane crashed out there on the other side of that cow pasture.” Mote instantly connected the dots to the sound he heard earlier and the men that lay before him. He then assembled a convoy of trucks and four-wheelers to locate the crash site and rescue the survivors.
The Rescue Attempt That Had Heros And Looters Alike
Johnny Mote and his ragtag team were first on the crash site. Mote recalls the first thing he saw was a bloody hand sticking out from the wreckage. He could hear the people moaning, pleading for help. The whole scene tore him apart. His only help at that moment was his neighbor, Dwain Easley. The two men, for a while, were the only able-bodied persons present to help pull people from the wreckage. But soon, the helicopters that were heard and seen previously were on the scene. The choppers belonged to the Coast Guard, National Guard and Forrest County General Hospital, who were doing their best to ferry people in, and illuminate the crash site.
Rescue vehicles on the ground found no direct path in sight. Tangled by underbrush and the 20-foot creek, the rescue team had to act and think fast. Two bulldozers were dispatched to plow a primitive path off nearby Highway 568 in order to give a ground path available to the first responders. It would take hours to remove the bodies of the dead and injured from the plane. Identification was completely hindered as there had been a poker game going on during the flight, and everyone’s wallets and purses had been strewn throughout the swamp. News had spread about the crash and before too long an estimated 3,000 people had swarmed to the crash site. But not all had the intentions of lending a helping hand.
In the ensuing chaos, souvenir hunters took billfolds, jewelry, suitcases, band merchandise and even chunks of metal from the crash site. Gene Odom, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s bodyguard, recalls: “They took my watch, my wallet, my ring, and my money as I lay bleeding on the ground. I would like to think that only one âgrave robber’ was involved, but so many items were missing that I have to believe otherwise.” It was as if they were back in Noah’s time and all but a select few were stricken with greed of mankind and the chance to capitalize on an easy opportunity. Most of the 20 survivors were taken to Southwest Regional Medical Center in McComb, where the lobby had been transformed into a makeshift emergency treatment center to quickly deal with the onslaught of plane crash victims.
The Aftermath And The Battle With Survivor’s Remorse
Gary Rossington, one of the band’s guitar players, had suffered two broken arms, a broken leg, a punctured stomach and liver. Allen Collins, another guitar player for the group, had cracked two vertebrae, and the cut to his right arm was so severe, that it almost required amputation. Billy Powell, the band’s keyboardist, received extensive facial lacerations and a broken right knee. In addition to his fractured ribcage, Artimus Pyle was treated for numerous abrasions and contusions. Gene Odom had been thrown from the plane and broke his neck, his skin badly burned and one eye blinded by phosphorus from a de-icing flare that had been aboard. Leon Wilkeson, their bass player, had arguably the most harrowing recovery; as he faced many internal injuries, dislodged teeth, and a broken left arm and leg, and his heart stopped twice on the operating table while doctors frantically struggled to keep him alive.
Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines, Kilpatrick and the pilots were laid in a temporary morgue at a local high school gymnasium. Rudge chartered three planes for loved ones to identify the bodies. Among them were Lacy Van Zant, Ronnie’s Father, and .38 Special’s Guitarist Dan Barnes. Ronnie’s mother Marion refused to make the flight, after seeing a horrific plane crash of her own that killed 9 people. After claiming his deceased son, Lacy Van Zant went to visit the other members of the band at the hospital. The rest of the group had no idea at the time that they would never see the face of Ronnie again. When the group asked Ronnie’s father how he was, he simply replied “He’s fine. You all just better get some rest.” Dan Barnes recalls saying “This man had just been to the funeral home and seen his son dead and decided to keep that to himself for these guys to heal. I told him that it was the strongest thing I had seen a man do.”
For members Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, the weight of what happened seemed to push down on them the most. Rossington recalls saying “It was always weird for Allen and me because we were up front in the plane. It was Steve, and me, and Ronnie and I was in the middle of them. Then on the other side, it was Allen in the middle of Dean and Cassie. They all died but we didn’t. We always wondered why, you know.” The surviving members would grapple with this throughout their days.
Through Struggle and Strife, The Music Still Plays On
The years after the crash would be difficult in its own right for surviving members, most of which would experience tragedy and early death themselves. Allen Collins kept moving on, eventually getting together with Gary Rossington to form the Rossington Collins Band. The band would be marked for strife as just before their inaugural tour, Allen’s wife would bleed to death due to a miscarriage. In 1982 he would form the Allen Collins band but shortly after would wreck his new Ford Thunderbird, killing his then girlfriend and paralyzing Collins. He would eventually succumb to paralytic pneumonia while being treated in a hospital in 1990.
Leon Wilkeson and Billy Powell would both go on to pursue other musical ventures and both have a hand in several Lynyrd Skynyrd re-boots. Wilkeson would play in both Rossington Collins Band and the Allen Collins band. His luck, however, was on the short end of the stick as he would have his throat slit while on the Lynyrd Skynyrd tour bus in the early ’90s. It was rumored that it was Ed King’s (original guitar player for Lynyrd Skynyrd) wife but it was not confirmed. Wilkeson would eventually be found dead in a hotel room in 2001 at age 49. Natural causes were to blame. Billy Powell would be in the new starting line-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd until his death in 2009. He suffered a heart attack while on break from tour.
Artimus Pyle and Gary Rossington are the only two members alive today from the crash. Artimus has had many up’s and downs since then, several incarcerations, and a huge falling out with Gary. He had already finished a film about the plane crash when Gary and several others stepped in and placed a lawsuit against the film to not be shown to the public. Gary continues on the band with Ronnie’s brother, Johnny Van Zant, and guitarist Ricky Medlocke. The band regularly has different people sit in and play shows with them like Warren Haynes and Dicky Betts.
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