GILLSBURG — Lynyrd Skynyrd fans finally got their sign on the highway.
After initially seeking something simple to mark the band’s Oct. 20, 1977, plane crash, including an unsuccessful effort to get a Mississippi Blues Trail Marker, a group of fans and rescuers who responded to the crash decided to take matters into their own hands. The result was a massive granite monument, dedicated in 2019 on the 42nd anniversary of the crash. It has quickly become one of Southwest Mississippi’s biggest attractions.
Monument officials and state lawmakers held a dedication ceremony Sunday for new highway signs leading the way to the monument at 7364 Easley Road.
“We were sitting around discussing the (crash) site on the anniversary date two years ago and wondered what we could do to get a sign,” said Bobby McDaniel, president of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument Project.
“People were always asking where the crash site is. It’s very difficult to get to and there are no markings.”
Fans and rescuers raised funds and enlisted the help of Brookhaven Monument, which beat the deadline, not to mention everyone’s expectations, in creating three large granite monoliths with etched tributes on the front and back.
In the year since its dedication, the monument has become one of Southwest Mississippi’s biggest attractions, drawing in 4,500 people from 13 countries, 39 states and five Canadian provinces. And that’s with no directions leading the way to the remote attraction, which is eight miles west of I-55, in a place with no cellphone service for navigation.
As soon as the signs went up, more and more visitors have started coming.
“We are very proud and happy to get it done for the fans and for the rescuers and all of the medical personnel who were here in ’77 for the plane crash,” said monument board member, Skynyrd fan and band historian Mike Rounsaville of Oakland.
McDaniel pointed to the patch of swampy woods beyond several lines of trees a few hundred yards away, where the plane went down and recalled how word of the crash spread fast.
“Many of us stopped what we were doing and rushed to help the people on the plane. We didn’t know what we were going to find when we’d go there,” he said.
“ ‘Rescuers’ is a very lax word to say because we were just a bunch of country boys.”
Of the 26 people on the plane, 20 survived. Killed were singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray.
One of the survivors of the crash, Gene Odom, a childhood friend of Van Zant’s who was working security for the band, came to the dedication.
After the dedication ceremony along Highway 568, he went to the monument about a quarter mile down Easley Road. On the back of one of the pieces of granite is the last photo taken of the group, with the doomed Convair airplane in the background. Odom pointed to the plane, recalled to fans where he was when it went down.
“I was jettisoned up under the wing. Nobody knew I was in there for a couple of hours,” Odom said. “I had these massive injuries.”
Rep. Beckie Currie, R-Brookhaven, who helped usher through the sign legislation in the House, recalled her own experiences with the night of the crash.
Currie was a nursing student working as a courier at Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center when she received word of a code black — a massive trauma requiring all hands on deck. Her nursing instructor, whom Currie described as “Nurse Ratched,” told her not to get in the way.
“I was there but unfortunately I was not able to help any of the people that were in the crash,” she said, adding that many hospital employees worked throughout the night without realizing they were tending to a famous rock band.
“I can tell you that the medical people at the hospital did very good work and they stepped up to the plate,” Currie said.
She said she’s always appreciated the band’s music.
“I spent a lot of time in the summers on the Bogue Chitto River and listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and having way, way, way too much fun,” she said, adding that now her family cranks up “Free Bird” when they drive through the Mobile, Ala., tunnel on the way to beach vacations.
Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brook-haven, said she became involved through her husband Pat Nelson’s work helping organize fundraisers for the monument.
When she learned about the effort to install highway signs, “It became apparent we needed some legislation,” she said.
She filed a bill in the Senate and received support from Sen. Tammy Witherspoon, D-Magnolia, and Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, as well as Currie.
On the day she introduced the legislation, she had pages pass out guitar picks and played the song “Don’t Ask Me No Questions I’ll Tell You No Lies.”
“It is such a wonderful tribute to the Lynyrd Skynyrd band. I just want to thank you for the work you’ve done,” Doty said.