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Members of rock band die in crash

By United Press International
On October 20, 1977, members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, pictured in this December 8, 1975, advertisement in Billboard, were killed in the Mississippi crash of a plane chartered by the rock band. File Photo courtesy MCA Records
On October 20, 1977, members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, pictured in this December 8, 1975, advertisement in Billboard, were killed in the Mississippi crash of a plane chartered by the rock band. File Photo courtesy MCA Records

GILLSBURG, Miss. -- A chartered twin-engine plane carrying the Lynyrd Skynyrd rock band crashed in a piney woods in southwest Mississippi Thursday night, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and five other persons.

The other 20 persons aboard the plane were injured, five of them critically.

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Besides Van Zant, leader of the group, the dead included three persons traveling with the band -- Steve Gaines, his sister, Cassie Gaines, and Dean Kilpatrick. The pilot, Walter McCrearey and co-pilot, John Grey, also were killed.

Survivors included guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, drummer Artimus Pyle, bassist Leon Wilkeson and keyboard player Billy Powell. Rossington, Powell and Wilkeson were in critical condition while Pyle and Collins were listed as stable.

The plane, a propeller-driven Convair 240, ran out of gas and plowed nose first into a thick forest only 200 yards from a open field which the pilot apparently was trying to reach.

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"It is really a miracle that anybody walked out," one FAA investigator said.

Another of the survivors, sound technician Kenneth Petden, said "the right engine developed trouble and it began to sputter. We began losing altitude and eventually the left engine started sputtering and we lost it. Everybody knew at that point he (the pilot) was going to try to make an emergency landing."

Petden said one of the passengers was up front with the flight crew when the trouble started and the passenger returned to the cabin section and said the pilot had instructed that everybody sit down and put on their seat belts.

Petden said there was no confusion or panic. "Everybody headed for their seats and buckled down. They did what they were supposed to do."

Petden said he was sitting behind the right wing and could see the trees coming up. "I knew we weren't close enough to reach the field. I knew we were going to hit the trees."

Petden said the crash wiped out the band. "The band will never again play as Lynyrd Skynyrd. I'm almost certain. Ronnie Van Zant was the lead vocalist and writer. The only other member who sang and wrote was Steve Gains. I'm sure Lynyrd Skynyrd is deceased."

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The plane, en route from Greenville, S.C., to Baton Rouge, La., for a concert Friday night, went down two miles northeast of Gillsburg near the Louisiana-Mississippi line.

A spokesman for Sir Productions, which manages the group, said all occupants of the plane except the crew were connected with Lynyrd Skynyrd or its members.

Rescue teams working with flashlights sloshed through a knee-deep creek to reach the scene of the crash and removed the injured on stretchers to ambulances waiting a half mile away.

There was no fire, but the plane broke in two. One of the wings was about 50 yards behind the aircraft fuselage. Lisa Easley, whose father owns the property when the plane crashed, said the plane was "just a big pile of metal."

Shortly before the crash at 7:47 p.m. EDT, the pilot radioed air traffic control in Houston, Tex., saying he was low on fuel. FAA officials said radio and radar contact was then lost.

The members of the band known for lengthy compositions revolving around electric guitar solos, grew up together in the Jacksonville area and played together as high school students. They have had several hits, including "Sweet Home Alabama," "Saturday Night Special" and "Free Bird."

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