MY 2006 INTERVIEW WITH JACQUELYN COOPER AT THE CRASH SCENE
By Pat Adams (from the Tennessee Concerts website)
On October 20th 1977, a twin engine plane carrying the Rock 'N' Roll band Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed in a remote section of woods in near Gillsburg, Mississippi. The plane ran out of fuel and crashed before
7:00pm, at the wooded property. Six lives were claimed in the crash including band members, Ronnie VanZant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, Pilot Walter Wiley McCreary, co-pilot William John Gray, and Dean Kilpatrick (the assistant road manager for the group). Six other members of the rock band were injured, two hurt critically and four hospitalized in stable condition. Survivor's listed in critical condition, included members of the group's road crew and a camera man. The propeller-driven Convair 240 skidded across tree tops for about 100 yards, then slammed into a swampy area and split open. I interviewed Jacquelyn Sturdivant Cooper, a family member of the property owner. She has collected family archives including newspaper's, photograph's, and family stories regarding the day the plane crashed in the woods behind there house. She also consulted with her mother Connie, who was home at the time of the crash, and tells her story. Interview by Pat Adams is the Editor of www.tennesseeconcerts.com, with over 1,000 Nashville Tennessee concert pictures.
The Interview took place in 2006
Who owned the property where the plane crashed at?
The actual resting place was on the corner's of three different properties. My grandparents (Percy & Delores Easley), Johnny Mote, and Fernwood Industries. The house closest to the plane crash belong to my parents (Connie Easley Sturdivant & Griffin Sturdivant), my Aunt Lola Easley, and Johnny Mote.
Where was your family's house compared to the plane crash?
Our house was approximately a quarter mile through pasture and woods to the crash site.
Who was at home when the plane crash occurred?
My mom (Connie), my two sisters (Natalie and Ashley), and my Aunt Lola. They were eating supper at our house, when they heard the plane crash. The windows were open because it was a cool evening, when they heard a very loud sound like "metal on metal". My mom said the sound lasted about thirty seconds, then nothing. They jumped in the car and went out to the road to see if they could find a car crash, because they had no idea it was a plane.
How did they find the plane crash?
My Uncle Dwain Easley and his friend Wayne Blades were hunting close to where the plane crash occurred, and heard it. They took off into the swampy area looking for it, and were the first ones on the scene. My mother, sisters, and Aunt Lola (Easley) drove by Johnny Mote's house, where they found Johnny and crash survivor Artimus Pyle. They had called for help. They went into the woods and helicopters were flying around with big search lights, looking for the plane. Twenty-six people were in the plane when it crashed, and my Uncle Dwain pulled each of them out of the wreckage.
Did anyone see the plane before it crashed?
A few miles away, my Uncle Arthur (Williams) saw the plane and knew it was going down. He called it in, and thought it went down close to our house, which it had.
What have you been told the crash scene like?
It was swampy, thick woods, and you had to cross a twenty-foot wide, waist high creek to get to the plane. It was a running creek that was between pasture and more woods. A log was used to cross over the creek and get to the crash site. There was total chaos with helicopters hovering overhead with search lights to illuminate the crash scene. Clothes, luggage, money, and other items scattered .
How did help get through the woods to the scene?
They had to bring in a bulldozer to cut a path into the woods, then cross the creek. Three ambulances got stuck in the pasture. People began using pickup trucks to transport the crash victims. It took three or more hours to get the victims out.
What family members later went to visit the hospital?
My Aunt Lisa went. She knew who Lynyrd Skynyrd was, from listening to their music.
What did the National Guard do at the crash scene?
They were there to secure the area, so investigator's could figure out what happened. Their were so many people coming down there, and even some of the rescue people were taking stuff. They brought in the National Guard to stop all that.
Who took these picture's of the plane crash, and when?
They were taken by my Aunt Lisa, the day after the crash.
Did any of the survivors come back the visit in the years following following the plane crash?
Yes, some of them came back to my Aunt Lisa's house, and to the nearby campground. They also went to Johnny Mote's place, too.
What happened to your family member's that were involved?
They are all still in the area, except my Aunt Lisa. She died in a car wreck in January of 1982, about a mile from the plane crash.
You said Johnny Mote moved, what happened to him?
Johnny Mote is still in the area, his kids and grandchildren and in the area, Brenda, his ex wife is very active and involved in all the Lynyrd Skynyrd Memorial Tribute stuff that is going on. She is related to us actually, and she lives very close to the crash site as well. (edited in 2021)
You went to the Southern Tribute concert on Johnny Mote's property in 2002 featuring Artimus Pyle, Travis Tritt and others. How was it?
It rocked! We enjoyed everyone, except for country singer Travis Tritt.
What are some of your memories of the Southern Tribute concert?
The best part was when Artimus Pyle got up on stage and blasted the ones who tried to stop the "tribute" concert. Headliner Travis Tritt would not let the bands play on his (so called) professional stage because he claimed that they were not professional enough. I thought Artimus Pyle said exactly what needed to be said. We stayed until the thunderstorm ran everyone off. They played "Freebird"
with one of Ronnie VanZant's hat's on the microphone. Two fifth-size bottles of Jack Daniels Whiskey were tossed out to the crowd, to have a toast to the victims of the plane crash. It was very emotional for everyone. They rocked, even in the thunderstorm for a while before the show ended. Artimus still has it!
Has Lynyrd Skynyrd ever played in the area?
No, that was the first time any members have played here. I wish they would come back. I love their music. I have been able to relate much of my life to the songs Lynyrd Skynyrd sang. They were, and will always be legends to me. As long as the fans keep there music alive, those band members didn't die in vain. They died, and with our help the "bird will continue to fly free".
Originally posted on the www.TennesseeConcerts.com website.
LYNYRD SKYNYRD PLANE CRASH 30th ANNIVERSARY
by Connie Richardson (Jacquelyn Cooper's mothers comments from the crash sight on the 30th Anniversary of this 1977 plane crash)
When people get hurt, there's a smell, says Connie Richardson. "Blood smell, sweat smell, fear smell. I guess the smell of death. If you ever go to an emergency room after a car crash," says Richardson, a former X-ray technician, "you'll smell it." But it wasn't a car that crashed on the evening of Oct. 20, 1977, scattering that smell across her family's property near Gillsburg. It was a plane. It had carried 26 people, including members of the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. A mom, who lost one of her lips, but still spoke about her children, thanking God out loud that they weren't on the plane with her.
Today, at the approach of the Day Free Bird died – a reference to the band's anthem – people like Richardson, the people of Amite and Pike counties who were there, don't pretend to make sense of the tragedy 30 years later. They draw no life lessons, except maybe one or two. One: Sometimes, people die for no reason. Two: Sometimes, certain smells stay with you. "As a matter of fact," says Richardson of Magnolia, "after the crash, somebody in the band gave my sister an album they were just about to release. "There's a song on it: That Smell. "I think someone in the family still has it." It was late afternoon when the plane flew low over Delaware Avenue in McComb. "I thought it was going to the airport," says John Thompson Jr., "which is what they should have done. It was so close. "About three miles away." Thompson, who turns 82 on Monday, was mayor of McComb. In January 1975, a category 4 tornado had butchered his town, killing nine people, injuring 210. By comparison, the plane crash several miles away wouldn't seem so bad. But it was bad enough. The pilot's goal had been Baton Rouge. But his plane ran out of fuel. He made it no farther than a patch of woods near a creek at the corner of three different pieces of property. The owners were Johnny Mote, Fernwood Industries and Connie Richardson's parents. "I remember the day after the crash, a radio station played nothing but Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes," Thompson says. "I had a couple of retail stores then, with some young guys working for me. They were hooting and a-hollering about it. "Until then, I had no earthly idea of who Lynyrd Skynyrd was. I'm a Glenn Miller type. "Glenn Miller, a popular big-band leader, disappeared over the English Channel in 1944. He was on a plane. David Williams, who was 14 at the time, saw something flying high over his home in Gillsburg. An hour or so later, he would be holding a flashlight over bodies in its wreckage. "I didn't know it was an airplane I had seen," he says. "It looked like a bird as far as I could tell. I was just a city kid who had arrived there recently. "I was chasing girls, not airplanes." Four bodies lay outside Renan Richmond's office. One was Cassie Gaines, a singer with the band. Five other people had died as well: band members Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. "We had a small morgue, that's why some were initially brought to the hall," Richmond says. "Working in a hospital, I had seen some pretty bad things. I just did what my job called for." Richmond's job at the time was administrative assistant at Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center in McComb. Nineteen of the 20 survivors went there first; the 20th went to another area hospital. It was Richmond who called the National Guard and asked for helicopters and a truck for the rescue mission in the woods. "I was in the National Guard at the time," says Richmond, 73. "Two National Guard helicopters went out there, and one Coast Guard helicopter, which had a monstrous light on the bottom. "We worked all night at the hospital. I got home about 3 or 4 in the morning. I had gotten calls from around the world. "I didn't know what a Lynyrd Skynyrd was. All these calls, asking if Lynyrd had been killed. Van Zant, the lead singer, was often mistaken for "Lynyrd". But the passengers who did, and their families and hangers-on, were grateful to the rescuers and medical staff, Richmond says. All but one. "About 8 P.M. the next night, the sheriff came in and went up to one of them. I don't know who it was. Not a band member, but someone who worked for the band. "The sheriff said he had $89,000 he and his men had found scattered in the woods. The guy's comment was, 'Where's the other $5,000?' " "For a rural town, that type of personality was a change"
Originally posted on the www.TennesseeConcerts.com website
We appreciate having the first in-depth information from the crash scene, as well as use of the family archives from the plane crash. The crash happened near the family home, with several family members helping out at the scene. Connie Richardson helped out. Her brother Dwain Easley was one of the first people on the scene, and Connie's sister Lisa saved the newspapers, as well as pictures taken the next day. Sadly, Lisa died in a car crash. Thanks to Jacquelyn and her family for sharing this information, as well as her family's rescue efforts after this tragic plane crash. Several people that were in the crash have been in touch with this family and appreciate them. (Left: See Lisa's quote from the Tennessean)
Matthew Todd Simmons from his Aunt Jacquelyn Sturdivant Cooper
He is the great grandson of the Easleys. He's my nephew, the grandson of Connie. He lived on the Easley land and his kitchen window actually overlooks the fields and woods where the plane went down, sadly he was also killed in a car crash. At the same age my Aunt Lisa was killed, both are forever 27. Todd was in the nursing field, he along with my grandparents and Aunt Lisa are all buried on the Easley Family Property near the
Lynyrd Skynyrd Memorial site, in the family cemetery.
January 29, 1993 - June 27, 2020
VIDEO: October 20, 2015: Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash site draws a pilgrimage (with Dwain Easley & others).
The site of the 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd tour plane crash has drawn visitors over the years. Tuesday October 20, 2015 marked the 38th anniversary and drew several veterans from the night of the crash.
This page was created by Pat Adams in Nashville Tennessee, with the help of Jacquelyn Cooper
in Gillsburg Mississippi (plane crash scene). Thanks to Jacquelyn for the Newspaper and Pictures!
Nashville, Tennessee, United States
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