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Final Flight of a 'Free Bird'

Sixteen years ago, Lynyrd Skynyrd was struck down by a plane crash

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In 1977, Southern rock was alive and kicking butt. A rowdy bunch called Lynyrd Skynyrd, from Jacksonville, Fla., had become the genre’s standard-bearers, thanks to the FM staples ”Sweet Home Alabama” and ”Saturday Night Special.” Skynyrd’s hard work on the road—up to 300 dates per year—had earned them one platinum and three gold albums, and they were due to headline at Madison Square Garden for the first time on Nov. 10. But on the night of Oct. 20, 1977, the band’s good luck ran out: Their plane crashed into a wooded swamp, killing three band members.

A day earlier Skynyrd had put on a show in Greenville, S.C., and they were flying to Baton Rouge, La., when the right engine of their Convair 240 (which they had planned to have overhauled when they landed) developed fuel problems and went dead. Pilot Walter McCreary tried to reach an airport eight miles away in McComb, Miss., but landed instead in the trees. According to keyboardist Billy Powell, as they descended, the passengers heard ”a sound like someone hitting the outside of the plane with hundreds of baseball bats.” The crash killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and Gaines’ older sister, singer Cassie. Pilot McCreary and two others also died. The other 20 passengers, including the remaining seven band members, were injured.

The group’s sixth album, Street Survivors, released three days before the crash, now had a ghoulish air about it. The cover, showing the band standing in flames, was immediately withdrawn, but the album itself still contained an order form for a ”Lynyrd Skynyrd Survival Kit,” as well as a song about death called ”That Smell.”

The survivors carried on. Guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins (who died of pneumonia in 1990) returned to action in 1980 with the Rossington Collins Band. For years they played an instrumental version of the 1975 anthem, ”Free Bird,” as a tribute to their fallen friends. When Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed in 1987 with four original members and Van Zant’s youngest brother, Johnny, on vocals, Rossington persuaded the reluctant Johnny to sing that song. Now touring to support their latest album, The Last Rebel, they are filling stadiums. ”You have to learn to live with the hard things in life and go on,” says Rossington. ”Nothing in the past is as important as the future.”