Reading about the Lynyrd Skynyrd weekend being planned in Pike County Oct. 19-20 brings back recollections of that fateful airplane crash 42 years ago.
As reported in the Enterprise-Journal, Pike County is going to host a tribute performance at Southwest Fine Arts Center on Oct. 19 and unveil a monument near the crash site the next day.
I think I was the first newspaper reporter at the scene of the fatal airplane crash near Gillsburg on the evening of Oct. 20, 1977. Six people — lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist and vocalist Steve Gaines, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray — were killed. Twenty others were injured but survived.
I was managing editor of the Enterprise-Journal at the time and was home from work when I received a call from Bob Kirkfield, the newspaper’s advertising manager.
As I recall he said he was at Kroger and heard that there was an airplane crash near Gillsburg with multiple fatalities and injuries.
I asked him to swing by the newspaper office, get a camera and pick me up at home.
The next day our entire front page included stories and pictures of the crash.
Here’s part of a sidebar I wrote to our main story that describes the rescue of the injured.
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Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center and other area emergency personnel practice periodically handling mock disasters.
Last night, it was the real thing, and from the looks of the activity at the hospital the practice has paid off.
Only thing, though, nobody had practiced removing 26 plane crash victims from a swampy patch of woods out from Gillsburg, across a creek to waiting ambulances.
It took some three hours or more from the time the plane crashed to get the job done, but again, those whose jobs it is to do such things, carried out their duties with precision and skill and as much speed as possible under difficult situations.
Bob Kirkfield, Enterprise-Journal advertising manager, and I arrived on the scene amid the rescue efforts. It was hard enough getting across the 20-foot wide creek carrying a camera.
It obviously would have been harder carrying an injured person.
We walked across a fallen tree. Some were fording the creek, a tributary of the Amite River. Persons going to the plane had to be careful not to step on the injured and dead who had been thrown or removed from the aircraft.
At first it was thought the ambulances could go around another direction to get closer to the plane and avoid having to carry the victims across the creek. Later the decision was made to carry them across the stream.
Two Civil Defense workers at the scene said a sandbar was found crossing the stream and rescuers were able to carry stretchers across it without wading the water, however, they had to walk for more than a mile to get to the ambulances.
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Another sidebar was written by Mike Williamson, father of current Enterprise-Journal Managing Editor Matt Williamson, who wrote in detail about the activities at the hospital.
"We practice disaster drills so many times during the year that when this one came up I wondered if people would think it was practice too," then Southwest Mississippi Regional Administrator Tom Logue was quoted the next morning. “But when the first patient arrived, we went to work. They knew this wasn’t a drill. I was real proud of everyone at the hospital,”
Logue and most hospital employees, as well as Civil Defense personnel and others who took part in the rescue operations following the plane crash went through an almost sleepless night, Williamson’s article noted.
So did we at the newspaper. We received telephone calls from news agencies all across the country and a few from Europe seeking information.
Over the years there have been some derisive jokes about some people in Pike County, when first hearing about the crash, thought Lynyrd Skynyrd was a person killed in the crash, being unfamiliar with the rock band. Okay, I confess. I was one of them. But it didn’t take me long to find out who they were.
In my and those other country bumpkins defense, Lynyrd Skynyrd became a lot bigger name after the crash than before.