It has been 40 years since one of the biggest tragedies in rock music history took place. On October 20, 1977, three members of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd were killed in a horrific plane crash, silencing the Southern rock band at the height of their fame.
Just three days after the release of the band’s fifth album, Street Survivors, Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, airplane pilot Walter Wiley McCreary, co-pilot William John Gray, and the band’s assistant road manager, Dean Kilpatric, were killed on impact when the tour plane crashed into a swampy forest in Gillsburg, Mississippi, after running out of fuel. Drummer Artimus Pyle, one of the few survivors able to walk after the crash, was allegedly shot at by an alarmed farmer as he staggered out from the wreckage to get help.
After the plane crash, the surviving Lynyrd Skynyrd members disbanded as several of them recovered from extensive injuries, including Pyle, who suffered broken ribs, and bandmate Gary Rossington, who broke his arms, legs, wrists, ankles, and pelvis, according to Yahoo Music.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’ record label MCA promptly replaced Skynyrd’s Street Survivors album cover, which was originally issued on Oct. 17, 1977, with a photo of the band members engulfed in flames. The cover was replaced with a basic group shot against a black background.
The tragedy signaled the end of the band’s original lineup, with an ABC news report at the time reporting that the surviving members of the band vowed that they would never play under the name Lynyrd Skynyrd again. Some of Skynyrd’s surviving members to regrouped as the Rossington-Collins Band, but a decade after Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded, four of the crash survivors –Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, and Artimus Pyle— teamed up with former member Ed King, and the late Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, for a tribute tour. A revamped lineup of Lynyrd Skynyrd remains today, with Johnny Van Zant still sounding eerily similar to his late brother.
On the 40th anniversary of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash tragedy, surviving member Gary Rossington said he is still thankful to be alive and feels he was spared for a reason.
“After the initial shock of it and the injuries and the heartbreak and all that — ’cause we were more like a family than a band—we were childhood friends and all that,” Rossington said, according to WROR.
“But it’s just great to keep playing and I just thank God I’m still alive…I figured that’s why I’m still here so long is to keep playing for the people, making the people, our audience happy, and the fans. It’s really all for them…I think we’re blessed just to be able to play and share our music and our brand and the stories of Skynyrd… It’s just a great thing to do. Since the plane crash, I’m just thankful to still be here and try to make my way through this life.”
While Gary Rossington is the sole survivor of the crash who still plays with Lynyrd Skynyrd, his estranged former bandmate, Artimus Pyle, had plans to make a documentary film ahead of the 40th anniversary of the plane crash. But in August, a judge ruled in favor of Rossington and Van Zant’s widow, who wanted the film’s distribution halted, according to Fox News.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.
Take a look at one of the final performances of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd lineup below.
[Featured Image by Billboard/ Wikimedia Commons]