Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a four-part series.
Lisa and Randy Dickerson were being hospitable when they invited us to lunch and/or church in McComb, MS.
I had a better plan: Visiting the swamp land where the Southern rock group, Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed October 20, 1977 when their plane ran out of gas. The band was minutes away from Baton Rouge where they were to perform at LSU.
The Dickersons kindly agreed and, thank goodness for that, because I don’t know that we would ever have found the spot. It requires turning off a major road onto a black top road that leads to another old black top back road that has crumbled mostly to dirt.
Somewhere in Amite County, MS near the tiny town of Gillsburg, is the place where one of the most famous crashes in music history happened one night around 6 p.m. Back then, it was mostly thick timber with small farms scattered about. Now, much of the timber has been harvested and replaced with the smell of long, narrow chicken houses.
When I came down to the lobby to meet the Dickersons, they introduced Mary Thornton.
“Mary is a nurse. She was on duty the night the plane went down,” Lisa explained. “She was (drummer) Leon Wilkinson’s nurse in ICU.”
She nodded. “He was in real bad shape. My understanding was that they had to resuscitate him several times during surgery.”
We continued talking as we, including Tink, piled into the car. Lisa, quiet and gentle spoken, was snapping her seat belt. I sat between her and Mary.
“I need to have a good talkin’ with you,” she said. “You don’t need to be takin’ up and goin’ off with strangers like this. You ought to be more careful!”
I laughed. “I checked y’all out. You come highly recommended.”
The folks of small town rural South live life together. Whether it’s happiness or sadness, it is shared community-wide because we are equally yoked together. I have never seen this to be a truer statement of fact than in Gillsburg/McComb where farmers, loggers, ranchers, housewives and a volunteer fire department rushed into the swamp that night – a place filled with deadly copperheads – eager to help the dead and dying.
“The victims had so many family members who came and they wanted to meet all the first responders and those who were caring for them,” Mary commented.
In the middle of a piney wood thicket, Randy pulled to a stop on a lightly graveled path. In front of us were several astonishingly beautiful, tall black monuments, including one for each who died: band founder Ronnie Van Zant, musician Steve Gaines, his sister and backup singer Cassie Gaines (their mother died in a car accident two years after her children were killed), assistant road manager, Dean Kilpatrick, and pilots Walter McCreary and William Gray.
A local man, Bobby McDaniel, headed up a volunteer effort which raised $64,000 for the tributes including six steps that lead up between the monuments — one each for the six who died. The walkway is a replica from the album jacket. One More For the Road. Days earlier, the band’s last album, Street Survivors, had released, showing the band standing in midst of fire. It was immediately pulled and the cover replaced.
In October 2019, they unveiled the tribute site to a crowd of hundreds including folks who were on the plane and family members such as Judy Van Zant, Ronnie’s widow, their daughter and grandchildren.
In a quiet, obscure place in the middle of the rural South is more than just a row of monuments to plane crash victims. It is very much the evidence of the compassionate hearts of many common heroes, the kind who always want to do the right thing.
Lisa stepped out of the car. “Well, I’ll be! There’s Brenda now. C’mon. You’re goin’ to get to meet one of the rescuers.”
(Next week: In the third installment of this four part series on Lynyrd Skynyrd band, you’ll meet people who were first to scene.)
•Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of Let Me Tell You Something. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.