What Happened To The Bodies Of The Victims From The Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash?

The scene was horrific. A single bloody arm protruded from within the torn metal and debris as survivors moaned and called out for help. Bodies were strewn amid the swampy, heavily wooded crash site. Helicopters whirled overhead, lighting the thick forest as rescuers began pulling the dead and injured from within what was left of the twin-engine charter plane. It was the night of October 20, 1977, and three of Lynyrd Skynyrd's band members were dead, as was an assistant road manager for the band and the plane's pilot and copilot. Twenty others, all associated with the musical group, were injured.

Among the band members who died tragically that day was Lynyrd Skynyrd's singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister and backup singer, Cassie. Even in death, Van Zant and Gaines received no rest. In 2000, vandals disturbed their graves in Jacksonville, Florida, forcing their families to reinter their remains — Gaines in a secret location, and Van Zant to another cemetery in the city.

Lynyrd Skynyrd had been flying high

Just days before the tragedy, Lynyrd Skynyrd was flying high. The Jacksonville, Florida band's first album had came out in 1973, the group had just released its fifth studio album, "Street Survivors," which eerily seemed to foreshadow the plane crash. The cover featured the band members standing on a street with buildings behind them on fire. The flames seemed to cover Steve Gaines's face. The album also included an order form for a "Lynyrd Skynyrd Survival Kit."

The band had begun touring in support of the new album. The stars had played a show in Greenville, South Carolina the night before and were on their way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for another the next day when they boarded the plane. There had already been trouble with the twin-engine Convair 240. It had already experienced mechanical problems, and the group had qualms about continuing to use the plane. That evening, Cassie Gaines didn't want to board the aircraft, feeling it was unsafe, but her bandmates coaxed her aboard.

The dead and living were piled together

Just before Lynyrd Skynyrd's fatal plane crash near Gillsburg, Mississippi, both of the plane's engines failed after running out of fuel. The aircraft landed in the woods, rupturing on impact, and tossed people, luggage, and gear out of the plane. These were just some of the disturbing details about the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. "We landed in Mississippi pine trees, three feet thick," the band's drummer Artimus Pyle told Forbes in 2022. "It tore the plane completely apart in the 10 to 12 seconds it took to go from 200 miles to a dead stop."

A local dairy farmer, Dwain Easley, was one of the first people on the scene. He began pulling out the survivors, many of whom were all near the front of the craft, piled one on top of the other. He then yanked Cassie Gaines out by her belt. "I saw the blond hair," Easley told Nola.com in 2015. "I knew she was gone." While rescuers took the living to a nearby hospital, the dead went to a makeshift morgue.

A school gymnasium became a temporary morgue

The six dead were taken to a nearby high school gymnasium, which had been set up as a temporary morgue. Besides the band members, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and his co-pilot William Gray also died. The National Transportation Safety Board would later blame McCreary and Gray for the crash.

Soon, the families of the dead arrived in Mississippi to identify the bodies, including Ronnie Van Zant's father, Lacy, who also visited the surviving members of the band recovering from their wounds, but didn't tell them Ronnie — the band's founder and leader — had died. Ronnie Van Zant died from a single blow to the head. Artemis Pyle believed it could have been the large television or video cassette recorder they had on board that killed him when it flew through the air after they hit the ground. Steve Gaines and Kilpatrick both died on impact, but Cassie Gaines survived the crash only to die of blood loss before she could be rescued.

Ronnie Van Zant is laid to rest

On October 25, 1977, the family and friends of Ronnie Van Zant buried him at Jacksonville Memory Gardens in Florida. It was a brief ceremony lasting just 10 minutes. Among the 150 mourners that day were country music star Charlie Daniels — who performed the hymn "Peace in the Valley" — and members of other Southern rock bands .38 Special, whose lead singer was Ronnie's brother Donnie, and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. The only member of Lynyrd Skynyrd well enough to attend the funeral was keyboardist Billy Powell, using crutches to get around, his face full of stitches. They placed Ronnie's favorite fishing rod and black hat in the brass coffin before lowering it into the ground.

The family of Steve Gaines, who was 28, and his sister, Cassie, who was a year older, had the siblings' bodies cremated and buried them near each other and Van Zant. Dean Kilpatrick was buried at Arlington Park Cemetery in Jacksonville. Walter McCreary's family buried the 34-year-old pilot in Emporia, Kansas. His co-pilot, William Gray, who was 32 at the time of his death, is buried in Dallas, Texas. In 2000, vandalism prompted the Van Zant and Gaines families to move the remains of Ronnie and Steve.

Vandalized graves

In June 2000, vandals broke into Ronnie Van Zant's grave and pulled out his unopened coffin. They did the same to Steve Gaines' grave and pulled out his cremains from its urn, spilling some in the process. The police never caught the vandals. In the wake of this, the Gaines family reburied Steve in a secret location. The Van Zant family did the same with Ronnie but a Craigslist ad in 2012 listing cemetery plots for sale accidentally revealed where the Van Zants had taken Ronnie's remains. They had reburied him in Riverside Memorial Park, also in the Jacksonville area.

Today, the area of the crash site where Van Zant, the Gaines siblings, and three others died, is marked by a memorial of black granite dedicated to Lynyrd Skynyrd. A few months before the plane crash, Van Zant had told the band's drummer Artemis Pyle he wouldn't see 30 and would die with his boots on. "He was right about both," Pyle recalled. "He went out with his boots on, with style and grace, and honor, and he was just 29 years old."

[Featured image by Pairko via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY -SA 4.0]