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Return to the Lynyrd Skynyrd crash site

The news was shocking -- a plane crash near my hometown of McComb, Miss. These things don't happen here. But as my wife and I watched the news bulletins flash on TV, it was a big deal. It wasn't a Cessna; it was a Convair CV 240, a twin engine, 40-passenger plane that was down in heavy woods near Gillsburg.

It would be another hour before I heard the big news.

When the news broke that it was Lynyrd Skynyrd's tour plane, Nancy and I stared at each other. We were shocked, as were most others hearing the news.

I was a young graphic artist at the time. I used my camera in my work. I had a small studio, making a living mostly painting signs for local businesses. My college roommate was a young photojournalist. I admired his ability to tell gripping stories with his camera, so I began considering a career change.

As the bulletins continued, they became more descriptive: "Tractors were pulling ambulances across a creek" was one exaggerated quote I remember so well. I couldn't stand it. I knew I could take photographs if I could get there. I knew I had no business going, and my wife told me so. But I couldn't stand it any longer.

I grabbed my camera and jumped in the car. I threw it in reverse and plowed into my mother-in-law's car. I quickly maneuvered free of a crumpled bumper and sped off. I'd deal with that later.

A few minutes later I was talking my way past a Mississippi State trooper. He also knew I had no business there, but his face told me he knew I was beginning a new career that night.

The band was reaching fever pitch with its fans across the South and the nation. With a newly-released album, "Street Survivors," they were flying from a concert in Greenville, S.C. to the next night's show at LSU in Baton Rouge in a substandard charter plane. At least one member, background singer Cassie Gaines, had refused to board the flight, but was convinced against her better judgment.

The official report of the crash read: "The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determines that the probable cause of this accident was fuel exhaustion and total loss of power from both engines due to crew inattention to the fuel supply. Contributing to the fuel exhaustion were inadequate flight planning and an engine malfunction of undetermined nature in the engine which resulted in higher than normal fuel consumption."

There were 24 passengers and two crew members aboard the aircraft. Four of the passengers were killed including bandleader and lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines and assistant tour manager Dean Kilpatrick.

Pilot Walter McCrearey and co-pilot John Grey were killed on impact. Another 20 were injured, which included keyboardist Billy Powell, guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, drummer Artimus Pyle and bassist Leon Wilkeson. The aircraft was destroyed by impact; there was no fire.

I had never seen anything like it before. I was not there to be a gawker or to get in the way. I knew my camera had stories to tell.

Rescuers look over the wreckage of the 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. The site has drawn visitors over the years. Tuesday October 20, 2015 marked the 38th anniversary and drew several veterans from the night of the crash. (Photo by Ted Jackson)

I worked the scene for about 30 minutes before a veteran photographer approached me and asked if I knew where the local paper "The Enterprise Journal" was located. He needed to use their darkroom to get his photos out.

He was the New Orleans-based photographer for the Associated Press Jack Thornell, known for his Pulitzer Prize winning photo of civil rights leader James Meredith. After I led him to the downtown McComb offices, I returned home, developed my film in a clumsy bathroom darkroom and went to sleep. The next morning I looked over them, made a few small prints and forgot about them. I obviously didn't know what I was doing. I've not looked at them since.

Lynyrd Skynyrd was known for their hard-rocking style, driven by powerful guitars. Their lyrics were raw and fresh - honest and simple. We were all fans. We knew every word. We beat patterns into our dashboards drumming out the beat. If a band couldn't play Skynyrd, they didn't get hired for the school dance. My younger brother and I banged out "Freebird" on a cheap set of drums in our bedroom. It sounded great to us. "Sweet Home Alabama" became the southern anthem for millions.

The plane crash made them legend.

Almost four decades later, I noticed a seemingly innocuous post on Facebook. An old high school friend, Bobby McDaniel, posted a photo and a comment about a name-carved tree from the crash site. His post noted that he and many others had made pilgrimages for years to the site to pay their respects.

So, with little hesitation I decided I should join the dance. I marked my calendar and made arrangements. Part of the preparations required contacting landowners and securing permission to be there and a guide to lead me in. While the site is duly remembered, it is on private property and is not open to the public. Posted and no trespassing signs are prominently displayed. Owners emphasize that trespassers can be prosecuted.

McDaniel was eager to join me. I had not realized before, but he also was there that night. He, like me, was 21-years-old at the time. Everyone knows him as "Governor." I'm still not sure why. As a member of the Civil Air Patrol on that fateful night, he heard the report of a plane crash over the citizens band radio. The location sounded familiar so he asked them to repeat. They were directing him to the property next to his family's farm.

He knew those woods well. He had hunted squirrels along that very ridge. He had known Easley Creek since his youth. Minutes later he was guiding an ambulance through an overgrown trail. "From there, we followed the lights of the helicopter," he said.

He remembered seeing bodies everywhere. As medical personnel triaged the scene, he helped carry the litters of the injured and the dead across the creek to a waiting 4-wheel-drive pickup truck. "They'd busted bales of hay in the bed to soften the ride," he said.

Throughout the ordeal, he remembers seeing the debris and suitcases scattered around, but he didn't think anything of it. He didn't know who the victims were. At one point, "a friend ran up to me and told me the plane was Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane ... and that just ... I was just ... taken aback by it ..." but then his friend continued, "don't worry, Lynyrd made it out."

Brenda Martin, 17 at the time, lived with her husband, Johnny Mote (now divorced) in their mobile home on the north side of the crash site.

Mote was putting out square bales of hay for the cattle when he heard what sounded "like a car crash on a gravel road." Before long, he noticed three men emerge from the dense woods along the pasture. "They seemed to be chasing him, trying to flag him down. All he could think was that they must be from a recent a jailbreak," she said.

"He (Mote) ran in the door saying, 'Ya'll get down on the floor, there's escaped convicts out there," Martin remembers. She said her husband grabbed his .243 hunting rifle, ran out and fired a warning shot.

One of the three men was the band's drummer Artimus Pyle, who yelled, "Plane crash." That's when Mote connected the dots with the noise he had heard earlier. Pyle used the couple's phone to call his wife. Martin said she then, "called 911, or 0, or whatever we called back then."

Johnny headed for the crash site to see if he could help. By then, a Coast Guard helicopter was hovering overhead.

Truth be known, after 38 years, Martin is a little tired of talking about the whole thing. "Are you writing a book?" she asked me as we talked. "Seems like everyone is writing a book."

"And everybody says they were the first one there. How do they know? Was there a guest book?"

Dwain Easley still lives on the east side of the crash site. His wife, Lola, and my wife grew up together. I photographed their wedding.

Easley knows he wasn't the first on the site, but he was there early. After a shorter-than-normal day of bow hunting, he received a phone call about a plane crash in the area. He could see the circling helicopter from his back yard. "They stopped, straight back there," he said, and pointed to the tree line a quarter mile across open hay fields and woods. He rushed to his truck and headed in.

"I'd never seen anything like that," he said. "The first thing I saw was a bloody hand reaching out from the debris."

He reached up and pealed the split fuselage back and, with a flashlight, peered into the dark, jumbled mess of bodies. His first impression was, "What is a bunch of hippies doing on an airplane? Don't look like they can afford a ticket."

But with no experience he morphed from a dairy farmer to a rescuer. Some were screaming and moaning for help, but they were all limp. He lifted one after another and shuffled them to others outside. "Folks were all mashed together. We'd move one and there would be another one laying there." He pulled the lifeless body of Cassie Gaines up by her belt. "I saw the blond hair," he said. "I knew she was gone."

"I never cared about flying in an airplane," he said. "That solidified that idea."

"He came home covered in blood," said his wife, Lola. "He didn't want to talk about it for years."

As we walked through the woods, Governor and I agree that nothing looked or felt the same. The site is hard to access. All the surrounding land is privately owned and prominently marked with "No Trespassing" signs. No discernable landmarks remained, save the creek bed. The tree where the cockpit came to rest has long-since died. Any debris left on the ground has long been buried. As we walked, Easely pointed to a towering pine. "If (that tree) could talk, it'd tell you all about it," he said.

One such silent witness has found a way to talk. A towering beech tree stands sentinel on the west side of the creek, carefully carved with scores of knurled epithets. Freebird, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 10/20/77 and a notebook-sized rebel flag are deeply etched into the old bark.

For many years, a dozen red roses have been carefully placed around the base, much like the mysterious unfinished bottle of Martell cognac at the grave of Edgar Allen Poe in Baltimore. This year there were no red roses, but a freshly carved "R.J." stood out with red paint enhancement. Governor said, "I'm bad about leaving an empty beer bottle ... and a full one ... for Ronnie and the boys" each year. Almost as mysteriously, the full bottle is never seen again.

As we talked, we heard a racket through the trees. And then we heard voices.

Over the ridge, a World War II vintage Willis Jeep crawled down a dusty logging trail. It was Dr. Hank Lewis, a month shy of 78-years-old. For another crash scene veteran, this was also his first return visit in 38 years.

As he looked around the scene, his mind went back. "It was a lot wetter that night. We had to cross a black water slew," he said.

Lewis was on emergency room call that night at McComb's Southwest Regional Medical Center. He was only 39, but was no rookie. "I was well prepared with advanced trauma life support training," he said, "and (I was) a flight surgeon in the military. So we came out here and got busy."

"I expected to see all dead people looking at these woods."

"There were plenty of old boys standing around here. I put them all to work. One guy standing near the wreckage lit a cigarette and I tackled him," he said. "We didn't know how much gas was on the ground. But there wasn't any gas on the ground because they ran out of gas."

"It was stuff I'd been trained to do," he said. "I had expertise on what to do ... and growing up in Amite County, Mississippi didn't hurt. But one thing I'm proud of. No one that hit the ground alive died.

Mike Rounsaville also arrived in the jeep with Dr. Lewis. And to Brenda's point, he's writing a book. He was a walking treasure trove of names, facts and figures. He drove down from his home in Oakland, Miss. to gather a few more. He hopes to publish in time for the 40th anniversary of the crash.

As the small band of brothers grew, the conversation grew lively but stayed reverent. Through the woods, yet another seeker appeared. He was more in the image I was pre-visualizing - one of an aging rocker.

Ben Gabel, of Denham Springs, is a former surveyor, and navigated to the scene from the official NTSB report, which includes the latitude and longitude. "But using a phone out here is worthless," he said, and even with his expertise, he had trouble finding the exact spot of the crash site. There are just too few physical landmarks.

Gabel says he's been to the site 15 or more times. I'm really not sure anymore," he said. "I've smoked a lot of weed ... I can't remember," he said. He says he first came in the 80s after he graduated. "I've been coming for years," he said, "and I've never met anyone who was here that night. With that cue, Governor took the honors and introduced everyone as Gabel's mouth gaped in disbelief.

In 1995, while on assignment in Phunket Thailand for the Times-Picayune's series "Oceans of Trouble," I boarded a small fantail fishing boat on the edges of the Andaman Sea with writer John McQuaid to photograph the disappearing mangroves. We had a friendly translator whose command of the English language was poor at best. With my camera at the ready, the translator and I stood watch on the prow of the brightly colored wooden boat as we plowed the exotic coastline. It was there that he struck up a fractured conversation.

"So, you're from New Orleans?" he said.

"Yes," I said.

"New Orleans is a southern city. I'm from southern Thailand. So, we're both southerners."

"Yes, your right," I said, slightly amused. But I loved the bonding. I didn't know where this was going. But we were both enjoying it.

"You like southern rock and roll?"

"Why, yes I do," I said, thinking about my roots, my old buddies and the high school dances.

"You like Lynyrd Skynyrd?" he said, barely able to get his English to suit his thoughts.

"Why yes I do."

"You like Sveet Homm Al Bamma?" he said.

I couldn't believe it, but he continued.

"How does it start?"

So on the prow of this small boat, plowing the coastal water on the other side of the world, he and I abandoned inhibition with an unabashed air guitar jam. I began the classic guitar lick.

Da-da, da-da. Da-da, da-da. Da-dah.

He smiled broadly and said, "Turn it up!"

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