‘Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash’: Reliving the 1977 tragedy that split the band
Tragedy struck in late October 1977, after a performance in Greenville, South Carolina when the band boarded a chartered Convair CV-240 and following a crash, half the band did not make it out alive
"If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
Cause there's too many places I've got to see..."
Isn't it ironic that the soulful tunes and lyrics of 'Free Bird' by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band that popularized the Southern rock genre in the 1970s, reminds you of the instant when tragedy struck in 1977 and split the members into two halves? Formed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964, the band was named My Backyard at first with members, including lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarists Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, bass guitarist Larry Junstrom and drummer Bob Burns.
At first, the band changed many names and toured for five years before finally settling down on the name Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1969. The debut album of the same name came in 1973, which included a lineup with bassist Leon Wilkeson, keyboardist Billy Powell and guitarist Ed King.
Tragedy struck in late October 1977, after a performance at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium in Greenville, South Carolina. The band boarded a chartered Convair CV-240 bound for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to head to a performance at LSU the following night. Quite surprisingly, it was barely three days after the release of Street Survivors, the Southern rock band's fifth studio album that was released on October 17, 1977.
While the band members were in the aircraft, the plane ran out of fuel and attempted an emergency landing while trying to navigate to McComb Airport. However, the plane crashed in a forest five miles away from Gillsburg, Mississippi. Sadly, Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, along with backup singer Cassie Gaines (Steve's older sister), assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray died in the accident.
Several passersby had noticed vocalist Zant with a mild hangover before the flight as he was lying on the floor with a pillow to take rest. Drummer Artimus Pyle reminisced the horrific incident and was told by a terrified pilot Walter McCreary to go back and strap himself in. Guitarist Gary Rossington revealed he heard sounds of hundreds of baseball bats hitting the plane's fuselage as it began striking trees. As the sound rung in his ear repeatedly, he was knocked out and woke up to find the plane's door on top of him.
Many others, including Collins, Rossington, Wilkeson, Powell, Pyle, and Hawkins, tour manager Ron Eckerman, and several road crew members suffered serious injuries. While they disbanded after the tragedy, the band reunited with Ronnie's brother, Johnny Van Zant, as its lead vocalist to perform an instrumental version of 'Free Bird' at Charlie Daniels' Volunteer Jam V in January 1979.
Following the crash, Street Survivors became the band's second platinum album and reached No. 5 on the US album chart. Not just that, the single 'What's Your Name' was on the 13th spot. Since the cover sleeve for Street Survivors had a photograph of the band amid flames, with Steve Gaines nearly obscured by fire, MCA Records withdrew the original cover and replaced it with the album's back photo against a plain black background. 30 years later, the original "flames" photo was restored for the deluxe CD version.
Back in January 2018, Lynyrd Skynyrd announced its farewell tour and if reports are to be believed, the band members are currently working on their fifteenth album. Shedding light on the incident, 'Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash' is a musical survival drama directed and written by Jared Cohn along with writer Brian Perera. While it first premiered in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival downtown in February of 2020, the movie is all set for release on DVD, Blu-ray and Video on Demand on June 30 from Cleopatra Entertainment.