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Today is May 9, 2021

Lynyrd Skynyrd

A memorial for the fans, survivors and rescuers

By Steven Ward

Lynyrd Skynyrd

They were first responders before the official first responders arrived on the scene.

Dennis Wilson, Bobby McDaniel and Dwain Easley all lived close to the pine tree scattered terrain in Gillsburg where a plane crashed the night of Oct. 20, 1977.

Wilson, McDaniel, Easley and others in the area had no idea who was on the plane and, frankly, they didn’t care.

They just wanted to help any survivors.

The plane was transporting the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd from Greenville, South Carolina to a concert in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The Convair CV-240 passenger plane ran out of fuel and crashed right after dusk in the woods of Gillsburg. The crash killed Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, Gaines’ sister, Cassie Gaines, a backup singer, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the pilot and co-pilot.

Wilson, McDaniel and Easley — all in their early 20s at the time — carried bodies and survivors from the plane through the swampy and muddy muck of the ground to a nearby road.

The plane was carrying 26 people. Six were killed and 20 survived.

Today, about 800 yards from the actual site of the crash, fans of the band and tourists have a place to go to pay their respects to the people who lost their lives that night and to visit a spot where a piece of somber rock history was made.

Thanks to the efforts of Wilson, McDaniel, Easley and other members of The Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument Project Board, a plane crash memorial was erected and opened to the public in October 2019.

“At the time of the crash, I was not familiar with Lynyrd Skynyrd, however, thousands of people were,” said Wilson, 70, a board member of Magnolia Electric Power, the electric cooperative that provides service to the Gillsburg area.

“The monument has been visited by fans from 45 states and eight foreign countries. Fans and followers will continue to visit the monument for years to come. I think it will have a very positive impact on our local economy here,” Wilson said.

McDaniel, 65, is the president of the monument board. His family farm is near the crash site.

McDaniel said he and some of the other crash rescuers liked to get together on the anniversary each year at the plane crash site. They often discussed wanting to get a sign or highway marker posted near the site because it was so hard for people to find.

“We set a deadline of one year and kept expanding our project. The initial sign location was approved on state property beside Highway 568. But we changed the focus from a sign to a granite marker,” McDaniel said.

The group encountered various roadblocks until Dwain Easley and his wife Lola Easley donated some of their private land near the crash site for the monument on Easley Road. The board started a GoFundMe account to help raise thousands of dollars for the project. The board also garnered financial help from the current Lynyrd Skynyrd band, McDaniel said.

The monument includes three 14-foot-wide, 8-foot-tall black granite monuments with drawings of the band and text that tells the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd and what happened on the night of the crash.

The gamechanger for the monument was when Mississippi lawmakers, led by State Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, passed a bill to put exit signs on Interstate 55 alerting motorists to the Gillsburg/Magnolia exit as the location of the monument.

Currie, who was a nursing student at the time of the crash and worked at Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center in McComb as a currier, was at the hospital that night in 1977.

“So I knew all of the people that worked getting the monument together. Many I had seen that night bringing people to the ER,” Currie said.

“I am now a registered nurse and member of the Mississippi House of Representatives and if I could do one more thing for a band I loved it was my honor to make sure a sign was erected to mark the monument and hope that people would see it and come and spend some time there,” she said. McDaniel said the monument gets up to 40 to 50 visitors a day during the week and more than 100 visitors on weekends, according to their guestbook. Many of those visitors credit the interstate signs for their decision to stop, he said.

McDaniel and Wilson said it’s possible that the monument will be expanded in the future to include a small museum nearby.

“Southwest Mississippi doesn’t get a lot of positive press or new industry. The Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument is a positive thing that brings some good people and nice compliments to the Magnolia/Gillsburg area,” McDaniel said.

Wilson, McDaniel and Easley were there at the beginning of a nightmarish time in rock history when a tragic disaster occurred in their backyard.

“Once we arrived on the scene, we were focused on helping the survivors get medical treatment. It seemed like a vast undertaking at the time due to the remote location and very limited equipment that we had,” Wilson said.

“However, we were just country folks helping a few people that needed help. That’s just what we do,” Wilson added.

Today, they are still there trying to do the right thing for the band, their fans and their community.

 

Visit lynyrdskynyrdmonument.com for more information about the monument or to make a donation.

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