Thursday, December 5, 2019

We Still Remember You - Article

On 18 October 2019, I arrived in McComb, Mississippi, to attend the dedication of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument. Before my arrival, I exchanged emails with Miles “Pat” Nelson, and at my request, he set up an opportunity for me to interview two of the many folks who helped make the monument to reality. Dwain Easley and Bobby McDaniel were among the first people to arrive on the scene after the crash in 1977. This article is a result of my interview with all three, as well as other people I met in the days I was there. A diary of this experience is available here.

The night of 20 October 1977 was clear, a blanket of stars shared the sky with a first-quarter moon. Except for the occasional sound of a barking dog and a nearby Coast Guard helicopter on a training mission, it was a quiet night for those who lived near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Then at approximately 6:45 PM, the stillness was broken by the sound of a Convair CV-240 as its fuselage made first contact with the treetops. The aircraft failed to locate a clearing for an emergency landing and was losing a desperate battle against gravity after the engines stalled due to a lack of fuel. In addition to the flight crew, the aircraft carried members of the band and stage crew for Lynyrd Skynyrd, who were on their way to a concert in Baton Rouge.

Eventually, the aircraft came to rest after plowing directly into an oak tree, which compressed the passenger section of the plane to less than half its regular length, which stacked people on top of one another. There has been much debate over the timing of the fatalities from the crash, but either immediately or just after the plane came to rest three members of the band (Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines), and assistant road manager he Dean Kilpatrick were dead as well as the flight crew. The crash severely injured most of the remaining 20 people on board.

Dwain Easley
Gillsburg resident Dwain Easley was 26 years old then, and he was among the first to arrive at the crash site to assist. “The first thing I remember hearing was a helicopter going over real low. Almost as soon as it went over, the phone rang, and it was my aunt and uncle, they saw the plane going down toward our house. We went outside to see what was going on, but where do we look?” Since the aircraft had no fuel on board when it crashed, there was no fire to identify the crash site. Luckily, the Coast Guard helicopter returned and started making slow circles over an area in the woods behind Dwain’s house. “The woods were getting dark, but I could still see clearly, and we took off running.” Two Coast Guard helicopters used their searchlights to provide light to the crash area to help with recovery. However, both lacked equipment for rescue/recovery, so they were not used to transport the injured.

In the time between the crash and when Dwain arrived at the site, three of the band members were able to climb out of the wreckage and took off into the woods, possibly toward the light of a nearby house, looking for help. When Dwain arrived, he was one of five or six people who had found their way to the crash site. “The wreckage looked like an accordion… Being one of the first ones there, I started to climb on top of the wreckage, but I’d never rescued anybody in my life. So, I reached down (into the aircraft) and started grabbing one of the guys by the arms and started to pull. But I couldn’t budge the guy; then I tried another one.” Gerald Wall, a law enforcement officer, noticed the people were still wearing seat belts and told Dwain. Using a knife, Dwain cut through the webbing and was able to lift the first survivors out.
“There was nothing inside the plane that didn’t have blood on it, and it looked like there were thousands of playing cards scattered everywhere.” Pulling the survivors from the plane took a few hours as each had to be lifted out and carried to a small clearing away from the wreckage. Dwain focused on rescue rather than whom he was rescuing. He admitted he wondered what a bunch of hippies was doing on an airplane. It wasn’t until all the survivors departed for the hospital that someone told Dwain whom he helped rescue. He was familiar with the name of the band and their music.

Bobby McDaniel
Bobby McDaniel attended three separate Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts before the night of the crash. After
hearing about the crash, he turned on the CB radio to get direction only to be instructed to go to his family farm.  On his way there, he was approached by an ambulance driver, telling him they could not get to the site due to thick mud and a creek blocking access. “They asked me if I knew another way in, they said, ‘Bobby knows those woods he’ll get us another way in.’ So, I get in the ambulance and direct ‘em down a logging road on the south side.” After getting as close as possible, Bobby jumped out of the ambulance and ran into the woods toward the crash site.

“There was already rescue going on by the time I got there.” Because of some first aid training from the Boy Scouts and as a member of the civil air patrol, Bobby helped a doctor set up a triage point and helped coordinate the transport of survivors out via 4X4 trucks to the waiting ambulances. “At first, it was only one stretcher,” as a result, moving the injured from the crash site for transportation to the hospital was slow. Additionally, every stretcher had to cross a small creek to get from the crash site to the ambulances.

In the following hours, others arrived to assist the survivors and the recovery of the dead. Several hundred gawkers also came once it became widely known who was on board the aircraft. Once all the survivors en route for treatment, both men departed the scene — the following morning, they discovered the importance of the incident.

In the week after the crash, many people showed up to visit the site. Then traffic slowly faded to a trickle.  In the years since the occasional pilgrim would still knock on the door looking for the crash site. As time passed for Bobby and Dwain, their memories of the night remained vivid; it is those memories that kept a flicker of an idea alive in the back of their mind.

Bobby credits one thing with getting the ball rolling on creating the monument, social media. “At each anniversary for the past six of seven years, I used to go back there with two long-necked Budweiser beers, I’d drink one, and I’d leave the other one there for Ronnie and the boys. On the 38th year, I was back there, and someone had left a dozen roses, so I took a picture of it and put it on Facebook.” A friend of Bobby’s who was a photographer for a newspaper asked to be with him the following year.  The photographer and Bobby spent the 39th anniversary in the woods.  No one ever showed with more roses, but speculation on who brought the roses caused attention, and the survivors started to contact Bobby and other folks in Gillsburg. 

Miles “Pat” Nelson
When asked what drove starting something 41 years after the fact, Dwain explained, “A year ago, someone mentioned that most famous plane crashes had a marker. So, I wondered why we didn’t?” At about the same time, Mike Rounsaville contacted former legislator Miles “Pat” Nelson to inquire if they could get state money to put up a marker. Pat told him probably not, but there was no reason they couldn’t raise the money for a simple marker. At this point, they were only looking at putting up a small sign on the road near where the crash occurred. 

All they would need for the sign was $2300, but then “…someone presented a better idea -- why not, a Mississippi Blues Trail marker?” Bobby explained.  The price tag at this point jumped to $9800. Pat put forward the idea to create a GoFundMe page to raise the money; the idea also landed him the position of Fund Raiser. Pat approached Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center to join the effort since they already had a foundation set up to facilitate handling donations and expenditures. It was about this time that the Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument Project formally stood up with Bobby as its President and Dwain as the Vice (Board members not mentioned here are listed below).

Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center
“In the first week, we had the $2300,” according to Pat, “It took another month or two to get to $9800”. At this point, some confusion occurred in the process. SMRMC wanted a display at their site as well, since all the survivors were taken there first. The LSMP discussed a second Blues Trail marker, but no application was submitted. When the Board went to the state committee who approves Blues Trail markers, they found them receptive. Not only did they already have the money to cover the cost, but they also had the wording needed for the plaque. The narrative by Ken Morris, Karen Nelson (no relation to Pat Nelson), and an anonymous Skynyrd fan was expanded and used for the final Memorial. The state committee approved the Lynyrd Skynyrd Blues Trail Marker unanimously. 

Before the state committee could officially release the information, word got out about the approval. There was some consternation over the early announcement, but the more significant issue was that the unofficial version talked about two markers rather than just one. The state committee withdrew the approval, according to Bobby, officially they said  “, Lynyrd Skynyrd is not a blues band, and there is no Mississippi connection.” Bobby called them back and gave them eight or nine blues-based song titles and provided survivor Ken Peden’s name as the Mississippi connection. The committee advised Bobby it was too late for this cycle and to resubmit the application in three months on September 15, 2019. There was no way they could wait and hope to have it in place by the 42nd anniversary, “We went a different direction,” Pat explained.

Rather than waiting on the Blues Trail committee, the board decided to create a similar sign for installation on the side of the road. When they pitched this to the state highway department, they were told to place the sign roadside would require legislative approval. Spirits were low at being blocked yet again.

Bobby was going to meet with local property owners to see if they would allow the sign to sit in their yard. When Bobby approached Dwain, he was surprised to learn Dwain and his wife had discussed the matter. “Well, not in the yard but just a few hundred yards down the road,” Dwain went on to explain it was a piece of property not in use and that he would be willing to donate to the cause. “That way, the state is completely out of it.”

One of the other issues requiring approval was the use of the band’s name.  Even though it was a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd, they would need permission to use the name. Scott Smith, who was on the board, said he had a decades-old phone number for Judy Van Zant, Ronnie’s widow. In a favorable twist of fate, it was still a good number, so Pat left a message for Judy. When she returned the call, not only was she agreeable to the use of the name she had only one question: can I come to the dedication. “I told her, 'hell yeah', and a month or so passed, but in the end, we had a letter from Vector Management giving us permission to use the name.” Vector would also donate to the cause on behalf of the current band. At this point, the plan to establish the memorial was becoming known, and donations came in from both entities and individuals. Many, $15 donations were given through the GoFundMe page, arriving from 17 different countries due to the GoFundMe page being shared across several Lynyrd Skynyrd fan pages and on social media.

With legal and permission issues handled and monetary needs met for the larger monument, the pressure was on to make the 20 October deadline. Brookhaven Monument, a local company whose mainstay is cemetery memorials, stepped up to meet the challenge with a design created by Dave Pace and Kevin Laird. Dave recalled, “I asked the Board when they needed it, and they said October 20th.  I said, next year, right?”  The Board confirmed they meant 2019, with less than 90 days Dave and his team feverishly went to work.

While the stone was selected, Rich Hagen of Illinois, created the graphics etched on the back of the monument. Ground preparation and installation work began at an accelerated pace. “I was here just three weeks ago and helped lay the sod,” Rita Witcraft a fan from Iowa who chanced upon the dedication, said. Freshly poured concrete surrounds the monument, and three Georgia black granite monoliths explain the birth of the band, the crash, and the rescue efforts. On the reverse side are graphics of Lynyrd Skynyrd in front of the ill-fated Convair and individual pictures of the band members who perished.

On 20 October 2019, a thousand fans and family gathered for the monument's formal dedication.
Bobby McDaniel led the ceremony, which included words from local dignitaries as well as Judy Van Zant.  After the official unveiling, fans spent hours taking pictures of the memorial as well as the family of survivors who had attended. As people stood in front of the large stones, reading the words, and reaching a hand out to touch the monument, the internal emotion each felt obvious. Some were smiling and laughing at the joy the music of the band had brought. Others were holding back tears from the loss, which occurred 42 years prior.

In one of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s most famous songs, Free Bird, is the lyric: If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? Just 400 yards from the fatal crash, at 7364 Easley Road, stands seven tons of carved and etched granite that screams “Yes,” in spite of the passage of time and obstacles overcome.

Afterword: The first stop for all survivors was Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center. A second memorial now exists at his emergency room entrance. Dedication will occur in November.

Board members not mentioned elsewhere:  Krystina Anderson, Tina Brumfield, John Reinheimer, Jamie Wall, Brenda Martin, and Steve Lawler.