Lynyrd Skynyrd crew, Judy Van Zant unveil Mississippi monument to plane crash victims

Justin Vicory, Mississippi Clarion Ledger
Lynyrd Skynyrd crew, Judy Van Zant unveil Mississippi monument to plane crash victims

Judy Van Zant-Jenness, the widow of original Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, stood atop a set of steps in the middle of the Mississippi countryside.

At her feet were six yellow roses. Behind her was a yet-to-be unveiled monument that would forever combine the influential Southern rock band with Mississippi. 

The roses symbolized the six lives lost more than 40 years ago after Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane skittered along the tops of the southwest Mississippi treeline, before slamming into the thick swampy brush. 

Judy Van Zant-Jenness stands below a sketch of the late Ronnie Van Zant, the original lead singer of the Southern rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd. The sketch is part of a monument to the band members who lost their lives following a plane crash near Gillsburg, Miss., on Oct. 20, 1977. Van Zant-Jenness, his widow, helped unveil the monument at a ceremony on Oct. 20, 2019.

Lead singer/founding member Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and both pilots, Walter McCreary and William Gray, died in the crash.

When Lynyrd Skynyrd fell from the sky: Survivors of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash return to the site 40 years later

The remaining 20 passengers, who were toward the back of the plane, survived partly due  to the reason for the crash: the plane was out of fuel, preventing it from erupting in flames. 

The other major reason they lived is because of the quick action of the locals. Nearby property owners, first responders and local businessmen traversed through waist-high, snake-infested waters in near dark to get to the victims. 

When three ambulances got stuck in the quagmire, the rescuers used their pickups as makeshift triage units and transported the victims to the local hospital. 

Lynyrd Skynyrd crash survivors, widow, fans make pilgrimage to Mississippi

Since the crash, fans have dodged protective property owners to reach the scene of the wreck and also what’s become the holy grail of the crash site, a tree marked with more than 40 years of personalized messages to the band, such as popular song "Free Bird." 

But Sunday marked the largest ever one-day pilgrimage to the crash site.  

Van Zant-Jenness held an emotional sway over the crowd of about 1,000 diehard Skynyrd fans from as far away as Alaska, Wyoming and Oregon.

"My family would like to thank you for all you have done to make this happen," she said with a shaky voice and eyes tearing up. 

"It's been 42 years today since we lost Ronnie, Steve, Cassie and Dean. But they will live on through the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd and all of the fans from around the world."

Sitting next to the Van Zant family were five crash survivors: former drum technician Marc Frank, security guard Gene Odom, lighting techs Steve Lawler and Mark Howard, and stage and sound tech, Paul Welch. 

A 15,000-pound monument made of black granite imported from Uruguay stood in front of them, about a thousand feet from where the plane went down. 

Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash survivors Mark Howard, left, and Steve Lawler stand in front of a monument dedicated to those who died in the Oct. 20, 1977. The two were at the unveiling ceremony 42 years later, on Oct. 20, 2019.

Lynyrd Skynyrd crash survivors, rescuers stay connected more than 40 years later

The crash survivors and rescuers collided into history on the early evening of Oct. 20, 1977.

But it wasn’t until recent years that a groundswell developed, one spurred on by media accounts of the 40th anniversary when two crash survivors, Frank and Howard, returned to the crash site, flush with memories of that night. 

A connection between them, and now other survivors, has continued to develop based on a bond of friendship and mutual respect, sometimes over pulled pork barbecue, cold beer and of course, music, at nearby property owner Dwain Easley's home. 

Easley, one of the first on the scene the night of the crash, lives about a quarter of a mile away from where the plane went down. He leased a portion of his land to the monument organizers about a year ago. 

Grassroots effort to build monument to Lynyrd Skynyrd

Bobby McDaniel, the president of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument Project, and others tried to get the Mississippi Blues Commission to dedicate a marker at the crash site. But despite the historical significance of the event, and the band's obvious influence and contribution to the blues genre, the commission turned it down.

Undeterred, McDaniel and others got to work, doing all the dirt and concrete work while a quarry in Georgia laser-etched the chosen words into the granite along with sketches of each deceased band member. 

In less than a year, the LSMP raised $65,000 for the monument, much of it from local contributors, McDaniel said. A separate GoFundMe site has raised close to $15,000, which will go to the preservation of the monument. Any leftover funds will go to the crash survivors, many of whom continue to struggle with medical issues from the crash. 

'Nobody that was alive at the time died, nobody died'

On Saturday, Dr. Hank Lewis, then the chief surgeon at the hospital where the crash survivors were transported, spoke about the night at a performance of Nuthin' Fancy, a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band. 

Lead singer of cover band Nuthin' Fancy belts out a popular Lynyrd Skynyrd tune at the Southwest Mississippi Community College in Summit on Oct. 19, 2019.

Lewis was on site that night, helping to get to the survivors, and then carrying them out of the woods on canvas military stretchers. 

"I'm proud of two things. I give a lot of credit to the surgeons and a higher authority than me. Nobody that was alive at the time died, nobody died," Lewis told the crowd, among them five crash survivors.  

"Coming here tonight and seeing all of you, to meet you guys and shake your hands. And seeing the quality of the humanity that was involved, really, really makes me proud," he said. 

McDaniel on Monday paraphrased comments from then-Mississippi Highway Patrol trooper Ken Estes. 

About two weeks after the crash, Estes, speaking to one of the crash rescuers, described the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash as the region's "Alamo." 

If it wasn't preserved and documented in history, it would be forgotten.  

"That's really the best way for me to summarize this whole experience and what it means," McDaniel said. 

Contact Justin Vicory at 769-572-1418 or jvicory@gannett.com. Follow @justinvicory on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Lynyrd Skynyrd: Ronnie Van Zant widow unveils monument to crash victims