Gillsburg Plane Crash Kills Six, Hurts 20 Including Rock Singers



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Gillsburg Plane Crash Kills Six, Hurts 20 Including Rock Singers


A story originally published October 21, 1977 (part 1 of 4)
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 Georgia 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.
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Busy Night at Hospital


A story originally published October 21, 1977 (part 2 of 4)
"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 Ann 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.

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Bad Place to Bring Plane Down


A story originally published October 21, 1977 (part 3 of 4)
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.
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Who's Lynyrd Skynyrd?

A story originally published October 21, 1977 (part 4 of 4)

(the A.P. wire story that went out nationally)


"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.
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Investigation into airplane crash continues


A story originally published October 24, 1977, just days after the crash...
Several of the survivors of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash at Gillsburg were reported in improved condition today while investigators continued to inspect the wreckage of the twin-engine aircraft that carried six persons to their deaths and injured 20 others Thursday night. Rudolph Kasputin, director of the National Transportation Safety Board team combing the crash site, along with investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration, said the planes engines, fuel gauge and other equipment were removed Sunday for inspection. Autopsies were performed Friday on the bodies of the pilots. Investigators also asked to see complete records on the 30-plus-year-old Convair 240 and on both pilots, as efforts to determine what caused the crash continues. Kasputin has said that the plane ran out of gas as a "distinct possibility." Rumors that drugs and money were found aboard the plane are false, said Amite County Sheriff Norman Travis.He said money and bottles of drugs were found "scattered in different places" at the crash site. He declined to say how much money had been recovered. He added that the drugs were "in bottles and weren't labeled, some was prescription medicine and some was just old drugstore medicine."..... Investigators spent the weekend interviewing the survivors and witnesses who were on the ground at the time of the crash. The plane carrying the Lynyrd Skynyrd rock group and their road crew, crashed shortly before 7pm in a wooded area of Amite County. The pilot only moments before had radioed the flight control center in Houston that he was having fuel problems and had been told the nearest airport was at McComb. The plane crashed eight miles south of the airports runway, minutes away from its destination in Baton Rouge. The group was to perform at Louisiana State University Friday night. Of the survivors, five were listed in improved condition today, six were stable, and two were expected to be discharged soon, possibly tomorrow. Two of the survivors who had been hospitalized, Mark Frank and Kenneth Peden, discharged during the weekend from Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center. Still in treatment at Southwest hospital, all listed as improved, were Leon Wilkeson, the groups bass guitarist, who was still in intensive care but "doing better"; Joe Osborne, Don Kretzschman, Kevin Elson, Ron Eckerman, Steve Lawler, Clayton Johnson, Craig Reed and James Bryce. At Baptist Hospital in Jackson, guitarist Gary Rossington was said to be in stable but in intensive care, while Mark Howard was moved from the intensive care unit to a private room and is listed in stable condition. Bill Sykes and Bill Powell are expected to be discharged soon, a hospital spokesman said. Four persons at University Medical Center in Jackson are all listed as stable. They are vocalist Leslie Ann Hawkins, guitarist Larkin Allen Collins, Gene Odom and Paul Welch. Three members of the rock group, both pilots and another person died in the plane crash. The dead included lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie, a vocalist, and Dean Kilpatrick, assistant road manager for the group. Two of the survivors, interviewed from their hospital beds Friday, said they had almost refused to fly in the chartered airplane, owned by L&J Leasing Company of Addison Texas. "There had been a lot of mistrust of that airplane since we chartered it," said Clayton Johnson, the bands stage manager. Johnson said he and several other passengers met shortly before boarding the piston-engine craft in Greenville South Carolina, Thursday night to discuss the possibility of refusing to fly it any longer. He said Cassie Gaines, who died in the crash, also had talked with him about the possibility of riding in the equipment truck instead of the plane. Johnson said there was no panic when the pilot announced a crash was imminent, but he said everyone had expressions of disbelief, and that "several of them starting cursing the airplane." Stage crewman Kenneth Peden was hesitant to fly also. "Just before the last trip the engine almost caught fire. The fuel mixture was wrong, and there was an explosion, and a flame six feet long came from the right engine."
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Skynyrd crewman nearly nixed plane


A story originally published October 25, 1977...
Joe Osborne, a road crewman with Lynyrd Skynyrd, was so unnerved by an engine flameout, before Thursday night's fatal crash in Gillsburg that he made reservations to fly the next trip on a commercial airline. But at the last moment he joined his friends in the band and the road crew on the old chartered Convair 240 in Greenville South Carolina for the flight to Baton Rouge Louisiana. The band was to perform in concert before an estimated 10,000 persons at Louisiana State University Friday night. The plane crashed in thick woods near Gillsburg, eight miles south of the McComb-Pike County Airport runway, killing three members of the well-known rock band and injuring 20 others. Osborne was on of the others. This morning he was to have facial surgery at Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center. His wife Melissa said Osborne suffered numerous small fractures in his forehead and around his nose and a brain concussion when the plane crashed. The Osborne's, who recently moved to Dallas Texas, from Little Rock Arkansas said in a letter to the Enterprise-Journal, addressed to the people of McComb, that they "have been deeply touched by the kind reception we received from everyone... The only way to ever repay your kindness to us, is to pass on the love we feel here in McComb to someone else in their time of need. "When we think of you people this phrase comes to mind, "There will come a night when the morning does not follow, and all that will be remembered of you is the love you gave out." Osborne and the other survivors are expected to recover from their injuries, although hospital spokesmen say some of the injured may be hospitalized for some time. Some survivors have been discharged from hospitals, and Bill Powell, the bands pianist, was discharged from Baptist Hospital in Jackson today. The cause of the crash is still in question while federal investigators continue to check key components of the plane's wreckage and probe the history of the plane and pilots, both of whom were killed. Autopsies showed that both died as a result of the crash and that there were "no pre-existing problems." The primary question still unanswered is how much fuel is aboard the plane when it crashed just before 7pm Thursday. Rudolf Kasputin, director of the National Transportation Safety Board team of investigators, said most of the wreckage has been released to insurance investigators after federal officials completed their work at the crash. Some parts of the plane have not been released including both engines, the fuel and ignition systems, components and the propellers. These will be subjected to additional examination and tests. Also, still being checked are the aircrafts flight record prior to leaving Greenville South Carolina, Thursday, the servicing operations which had been performed on the plane, and the tapes of air traffic control dispatches to the plane from Houston, Atlanta and Greenville. It was learned during the weekend, Kasputin said, that 400 gallons of fuel were pumped into the planes tanks before it left Greenville. But the question is how much was on board prior to refueling. Kasputin has said there is a "distinct possibility" that the plane ran out of gas but he said a number of other possibilities are being considered. Private investigators from an insurance company representing owners of the plane also have been combing the crash site, and said the companies investigation would not end for several weeks. While the probe into the cause of the crash continues, rumors circulate that large amounts of money and drugs were on the plane. There have been reports also that another body was found in the wreckage during the weekend. "It's all false" said Amite County Sheriff Norman Travis. "Just a pack of rumors" said Pike County Sheriff Robert "Tot" Lawson. Both were among rescuers the night of the crash and both said they had seen bottles of medicine and some money and checks. All was confiscated by Travis. Both said reports of another body found are false. Travis said he and several guards have been watching the crash site since Friday when National Guard troops left the scene, adding that most of the money and personal items had been collected for storage at the courthouse. There were a lot of loose bills all over the place the night of the crash, and there's no telling what got carried away," Travis said. "But we haven't found any large amounts of money, and to the owner, no one else.
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Plane crash questions lingering unanswered


A story originally published November 3,1977
Two weeks after the plane crash that killed three members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd rock band and three others, questions remaining about missing money, missing personal items and missing answers to what caused the crash. And what will happen to the surviving members of the band and to other passengers on the plane, most of who were employed by Lynyrd Skynyrd Productions Inc.? The twin-engine propeller-driven Convair 240, said to be built in the 1950's, crashed near Gillsburg October 20 after the pilot had reported fuel problems. There seems to be no doubt that legal action will be taken by the survivors against the owners by the survivors against the owners of the plane, L&J Leasing Company of Addison Texas. The wife of one of the injured persons said several lawsuits were being prepared, but she noted several years could elapse before final action of any of the suits is taken. According to the leasing agreement between L&J and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the leasing company would provide a total of $2 million liability insurance in the amounts of $100,000 liability per seat and hull insurance for the total value of the aircraft. The band had paid $5,000 in advance on the lease, total amount of which was $15,034, the agreement said. One section of the contract stipulated that the "lease shall hold lessor harmless in any event that drugs or narcotics of any kind should be brought aboard this aircraft for any purpose." A local attorney said the paragraph meant simply that if illegal drugs were discovered aboard the plane and arrests were made, the leasing company would not face charges and the plane would not be confiscated by authorities for having been used to carry such drugs. Investigators at the crash scene October 20 said bottles of medicine were found in the wreckage. The lease agreement was signed by L&J president Lewis L. May Jr and Lynyrd Skynyrd tour manager Ron Eckerman. The advance check for the planes lease was signed by Eckerman and the band's lead singer, Ronny Van Zant, who died in the crash. It was Eckerman, who returned to his home in Florida this week after being hospitalized in McComb, who said that $1,100 was missing from his briefcase after it was recovered from the wreckage. Eckerman said he was carrying $88,743.58 in checks and $8,000 in cash on the flight. All of the checks and $6,900 in cash were returned to him by Sheriff Norman Travis in his hospital room last week. Several loose bills, most of them apparently scattered when a poker game aboard the plane was interrupted by the crash, were picked up by persons at the scene, but Eckerman said his money was securely locked in a briefcase and that someone had to pry the case to get the money out. That money was used to pay the group's travelling expenses while on tour, he said. Meanwhile, group manager Mike Kinnamon is seeking the return of several items allegedly taken from the wreckage. He specifically is looking for a guitar in an oversized, white guitar case.
Source: Enterprise-Journal Newspaper - McComb, Mississippi


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