Wednesday, October 20, 2010

October 20, 1977 ~ Gillsburg Mississippi

Gillsburg Plane Crash Kills Six,
Hurts 20 Including Rock Singers
A twin-engine airplane, apparently out of fuel, crashed before 7p.m. Thursday in a wooded area of Amite County near Gillsburg. Six persons including the lead singer of the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd were killed and 20 were injured. The propeller-driven Convair 240 skidded across tree tops for about 100 yards, then slammed into a swampy area and split open about eight miles short of McComb Airport after reporting it was having fuel trouble or was running low on fuel", an Air Traffic Controller reported. The dead included lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and vocalist Cassie Gaines, Gaines sister, medical authorities said. Pilot Walter Wiley McCreary and co-pilot William John Gray, both of Dallas Texas, and Dean Kilpatrick, assistant road manager for the group, also died officials said. Six other members of the hard rock band were injured, two hurt critically and four hospitalized in stable condition. The injured, some of them also in critical condition, included members of the group's road crew and a cameraman, said officials of Southwest Mississippi Medical Center. The chartered plane owned by L&J Co. of Addison Texas, came down on its nose southwest of McComb, twisting the cockpit to the left, and threw seven or eight persons to the ground when it split open at about the middle of the fuselage, it was believed. The impact, which triggered no fire, tossed other passengers toward the front of the aircraft. "They were all in front of the plane and they were all shouting, get me out, get me, get me." said Constable Gerrald Wall. "We were actually standing on people to get others out". Johnny Mote, who lives near the crash site close to the Mississippi-Louisiana border, said the plane "sounded like a car skidding in gravel" as it clipped the trees. "When it hit the ground it was a deep rumble, like it was underground. It sounded like wrinkling metal" he said. The group was en route from a Wednesday night performance in Greenville South Carolina to a Friday night concert before an expected crowd of 10,000 persons at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The plane had passed McComb when it reported that it was having fuel trouble, and was told by the Houston Texas flight center to turn around and land at McComb, said Everett Fairly, an air traffic controller at McComb. "I tried to call them, but we couldn't raise them, and Houston reported it had lost radar and radio contact", Fairly said. A spokesman for the Federal Administration in Atlanta GA said the pilot had reported being low on fuel. Thick undergrowth hampered rescue operations and some emergency vehicles became stuck in the mud when they tried to drive through the woods to get close to the aircraft. Rescue crews were also hindered by a 20-foot wide, waist deep creek they had to cross to reach the plane. Pickup trucks and vans were used along with ambulances to carry the dead and injured to hospitals. A Southwest Medical Center spokesman said identification of the victims were complicated because passengers were apparently playing poker before the plane went down and had there wallets and identification papers out. Fairly said a small jet was landing at McComb at the time the plane was reported in difficulty and ask the jet pilot to fly over the area. "But it was very dark and the pilot said he could see nothing from the air,"
Fairly said. The plane came down near open pasture land, tearing off one of the wings and twisting the other.
Recuers had to rip open the nose to get to victims. Two bulldozers were used to cut a path through the woods and brush from nearby Mississippi 568. Donald Chase who lives about five miles from the area, said he heard "that the plane was having engine trouble because it was sputtering." Mote said he was putting some hay out when three bloody survivors who had made their way through the woods called him for help. "One of them was hugging me around the neck and telling me, "We got to get them out." Mote estimated it took up to 3 1/2 hours to remove all the bodies from the plane. Michael White who lives in Gillsburg, said he and his family heard the engines of the airplane sputtering about 6:45pm. "I guess it crashed about 6:47pm" he said, but were unable to find the plane."I called the airport about 7:00pm," he said, but was told there was no plane in the area.
The Pike County Civil Defense said the crash was reported to its office shortly before 7pm.

Busy Night at Hospital
"We practice disaster drills so many times during the year that when this one came up I wondered if people would think it was practice too," said Southwest Mississippi Regional Administrator Tom Logue this morning.
"But when the first patient arrived, we went to work. They knew this wasn't a drill. I was real proud of everyone at the hospital," he said. Logue and most hospital employees, as well as Civil Defense personnel and others who took part in the rescue operations following Thursday night's plane crash near Gillsburg, had gone through an almost sleepless night. Six persons died in the crash and of the 20 survivors, four were listed in critical condition at SMRMC today. Eight others were transferred during the night to Jackson hospitals, seven were listed in stable condition at SMRMC, and one was not hospitalized. Among the injured were members of the musical rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd. Three members were killed (see related stories). In critical condition in the intensive care unit at the McComb hospital were Leon Wilkeson, bass guitarist, with chest injuries, multiple abrasions and fractured left arm and left leg; Craig Reed, a member of the road crew, chest injury , lacerations and abrasions, fractured left arm; James Bracy, road crew, chest wound, abrasion, fractured left arm. Listed in critical condition, but not the intensive care unit, was Kevin Elson, the groups sound engineer, with a fractured right leg and ankle, fractured pelvis and left leg. Others, still being treated at SMRMC, all in stable condition this morning. were Ron Eckerman, road manager, chest contusion and rib fractures, and road crew members Kenneth Peden, multiple contusions, Steve Lawler, chest contusions, facial lacerations; Clayton Johnson, fractured right clavicle and left elbow; Don Kretzechman, chest injury, abrasions; Joe Osborn, multiple lacerations of the face, fractured ribs, and right clavicle; and Mark Frank, multiple abrasions, probably cerebral contusion. Transferred to University Hospital and listed in stable condition were vocalist Leslie Hawkins, facial lacerations and neck problems; Larken Allen Collins, guitarist, spine injuries; and road crewman Gene Odom, eye injuries and a deep scalp wound, and Paul Welch, injuries not known. At Baptist Hospital, also listed as stable, were Gary Rossington, guitarist, multiple fractures; Bill Powell, pianist, lacerations; Bill Sykes, a television film crewman, multiple fractures; and Mark Howard, road crew, head and back injuries. Another member of the group, drummer Artimus Pyle, was treated at Beacham Memorial Hospital in Magnolia. He reportedly walked away from the crash site and notified a nearby resident of the crash. Addresses of the victims have not been released to authorities. Logue said emergency treatment facilities were set up in the front lobby of the hospital before the first patients arrived from the crash scene. "The emergency room would have been bottlenecked with that many people, so we set up a treatment center in the lobby," he said. "The most critically injured were sent directly to surgery, the critical ones were taken care of in the lobby. We had IV bottles and all the necessary equipment to take care of them right there. Those less seriously injured were put in rooms upstairs, including the obstetrics ward, and in the emergency room." Logue said several persons were discharged from the hospital during the night to make room for the accident victims, but that some of those discharged later were readmitted. "It was a problem for a while, finding enough beds," he said. Three helicopters from the Coast Guard, National Guard and Forrest County General Hospital assisted in the rescue operation, Logue said, transporting at least two doctors to the scene and lighting the area with floodlights.
Logue noted two problems hampered operations at the hospital during the night. "The telephone was busy all night long" he said. "I talked with people from Sydney, Australia and London, as well as from all over the country." The other problem, he continued, was keeping up with the identities of the victims. "We had a hard time keeping names straight, and of course everyone wanted a list of the victims and how badly they were hurt".
"They did a tremendous job in organizing the operation and handling events as they came up," said Mrs Willy Mae Lund, one of the hospital trustees who assisted during the night.

Bad Place to Bring Plane Down
Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center and other area emergency personnel practice periodically handling mock disasters. Last night, it was the real thing, and from the looks of the activity at the hospital the practice has paid off. Only thing, though, nobody had practiced removing 26 plane crash victims from a
swampy patch of woods out from Gillsburg, across a creek to waiting ambulances. It took some three hours or more from the time the plane crashed to get the job done, but again, those whose jobs it is to do such things,
carried out their duties with precision and skill and as much speed as possible under difficult situations. Bob Kirkfield, Enterprise-Journal advertising manager, and I arrived on the scene amid the rescue efforts. It was hard enough getting across the 20-foot wide creek carrying a camera. It obviously would have been harder carrying an injured person. We walked across a fallen tree. Some were fording the creek, a tributary of the Amite River. Persons going to the plane had to be careful not to step on the injured and dead who had been thrown or removed from the aircraft. At first it was thought the ambulances could go around another direction to get closer to the plane and avoid having to carry the victims across the creek. Later the decision was made to carry them across the stream. Two Civil Defense workers at the scene said , a sandbar was found crossing the stream and rescuers were able to carry stretchers across it without wading the water,however, they had to walk for more than a mile to get to the ambulances.

Who's Lynyrd Skynyrd?
Associated Press article & picture, just after plane crash in October 1977
"We like to call ours "Southern Raunchy Roll" Ronnie Van Zant once said of his musical group Lynyrd Skynyrd.
"The other bands are just as bad, but we go to jail more". Van Zant and his fightin' Southern band prided themselves on that battling image and a hard driving blaring sound which they rode to sold out concert tours and million selling albums. They had just begun a tour on the heels of a new album when a charted plane they were on went down near McComb Mississippi, thursday night en route to Baton Rouge, Louisiana from Greenville South Carolina.Van Zant, the groups lead vocalist and one of its founders, died along with guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie in the crash. All three were 28. Two other members, Gary Rossington another who helped form the group, and Leon Wilkeson were reported in critical condition after the crash. The other four members of the group were in stable condition. The band came from Jacksonville Florida in the early '70's with Ronnie Van Zant, Rossington and Allen Collins playing together in high school and adding other members later. That school Robert E. Lee, also allegedly produced their strangley spelled group name. It seems a physical education teacher named Leonard Skinner didn't cotton to long hair and loud music. A run-in with him helped get the boys suspended. Vowing to get even, they named there group after him, changing the vowels to avoid a lawsuit and becoming famous enough to make the story a rock legend. Lynyrd Skynyrd first
hit national prominence in 1974 with a single called "Sweet Home Alabama" which exstolled the virtues of the South in general and Alabama in particular. A huge Confederate Flag became one of the bands symbols. The group went on to have two gold and three platinum albums and numerous runins with the law on tour. "Were
kind of like an old dog that ain't housebroke" Van Zant said in a 1976 interview. "I don't know...born under a bad sign, I guess. The band's most recent hometown performance ended in an uproar with 16 persons getting arrested. Police later estimated that 15,000 persons took part in the disturbance at the Jacksonville Coliseum and caused $14,000 in damage. The band included Van Zant, Gaines, Rossington and Allen Collins guitarist; Leon Wilkeson bass; Billy Powell keyboardist; and Artimus Pyle drummer. Gaines sister and Leslie Hawkins were backup singers. All were from Florida except Pyle, from Spartanburg
South Carolina, and the Gaineses were from Seneca Missouri. The bands million-sellers were "Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-erd", "Second Helping", and "One More From The Road". The bands latest album "Street Survivors" was released October 17 (1977)

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