45 years after Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash, tragedy still fresh for survivor
Forty-five years to the day after a plane crash claimed the lives of three members of southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, Artimus Pyle remembers the tragedy like it was yesterday.
"I think about it every day," one of the last living original members of the band on that fateful flight in 1977 recalled to Forbes earlier this week.
On Oct. 20, 1977, the Jacksonville, Florida-based band left Greenville, South Carolina, after a concert at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, and boarded a chartered plane en route to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they were scheduled to perform the next night at Louisiana State University.
They didn't make it.
Near the end of the flight, the twin-engine Convair CV-240 ran out of fuel. After the pilot and co-pilot determined that the plane didn't have enough fuel to land at a nearby airport, they unsuccessfully attempted an emergency landing and crashed a few minutes before 7 p.m. in a wooded area near Gillsburg, Mississippi.
The crash took the lives of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines.
Assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray Jr. were also killed.
Twenty others on the plane survived, among them band members Allen Collins, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, Gary Rossington and Leon Wilkerson.
"We landed in Mississippi pine trees, 3 feet thick," Pyle described to Forbes. "It tore the plane completely apart in the 10 to 12 seconds it took to go from 200 miles to a dead stop."
Several of the surviving band members were seriously injured, including keyboardist Powell, who suffered severe facial lacerations, almost losing his nose. Powell would succumb to a heart attack at his Florida home in 2009. He was 56.
"The smell of death surrounds you." — lyric as sung by Ronnie Van Zant in "That Smell"
Collins broke two vertebrae in his neck and suffered severe damage to his right arm, which he refused to have amputated. He eventually recovered but became paralyzed from the waist down after a 1986 crash that claimed the life of his girlfriend. He died four years later of chronic pneumonia – a complication of the paralysis.
Rossington was knocked unconscious in the crash. When he woke up, he was on the ground with the plane's door on top of him. Despite breaking both arms, legs, wrists and ankles, as well as his pelvis, Rossington recovered from his injuries and still plays guitar with the reincarnated version of the band.
Wilkerson suffered a double fracture to his left leg, a double compound fracture to his left arm, six broken ribs, one of which punctured his left lung, and severe facial damage, losing 15 teeth. The bassist rejoined the band in 1987 but died in his sleep at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Beach Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, in 2001. Wilkerson, who was suffering from chronic liver and lung disease at the time of his death, was 49.
Pyle, who was the band's drummer, broke several ribs but managed to stumble through a creek and field to a farmhouse for help. He helped lead rescuers to the wooded crash site, but not before being shot.
"I know the farmer was only protecting his family," Pyle, now 74, told Forbes. "He came out of the house, and I looked like Charles Manson all covered in blood, with my long hair and beard."
The farmer later denied shooting Pyle.
"He yelled stop. I saw the gun," Pyle said. "I was stumbling because I had injuries and thought I was dying. Then, something tore through my arm, and I yelled 'plane crash' with what I thought was my last breath."
The crash occurred just three days after the band released its fifth studio album, "Street Survivors."
"If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?" — lyric as sung by Ronnie Van Zant in "Free Bird"
At the time of the crash, Lynyrd Skynyrd was just five shows into its "Tour of the Survivors" – an ominous title given the circumstances that would befall them.
In the end, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the crash was "fuel exhaustion and total loss of power from both engines due to crew inattention to fuel supply." The NTSB accident report also cited "inadequate flight planning and an engine malfunction of undetermined nature" as contributing factors to the loss of fuel.
The crash forever changed the fate of the band.
Van Zant, who wrote some of the band's most famous songs, including "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama," was gone.
Lynyrd Skynyrd wouldn't perform for another decade, until Johnny Van Zant – Ronnie's younger brother – took over as lead singer in 1987.
The band ultimately made good on its canceled tour stop at LSU 14 years later, honoring the more than 100 concertgoers who kept their original tickets to the Oct. 21, 1977, concert date.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. The inductees included posthumous honors for Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines.
For 23 years, Van Zant, Gaines and sister Cassie Gaines were interred at Jacksonville Memory Gardens in Orange Park, Florida. But the remains were moved to an undisclosed private burial site after their tombs were vandalized in 2000. Van Zant's unopened casket and a plastic bag containing Steve Gaines' cremated ashes were disturbed, prompting Van Zant's widow to make the move.
Lynyrd Skynyrd fans can rest assured, however, that they can still pay their respects to Van Zant and Gaines. Their mausoleums are still at the Jacksonville-area cemetery as memorials to the musicians whose lives were cut short exactly 45 years ago.
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