This is the final installment of a four-part series.
Almost 40 years passed without Dwain Easley and his friends ever mentioning to each other what they had experienced in that Mississippi swamp on Oct. 20, 1977.
Now, it seems a bit peculiar to them that they never discussed it again.
“We saw each other all the time,” says Easley, a man so seemingly kind and gentle that you wouldn’t think he’d have the temerity to face down the kind of blood and suffering he witnessed the night that Lynyrd Skynyrd band’s plane crashed behind his house. “We’d see each other at church, high school football games, the store, but we never talked about it.” He shrugged. “I don’t know why, but we never mentioned it again. Never talked about it at all.”
Probably because it was too difficult to relive. And why discuss it? They knew who lived and who died. They knew who carried out which lifeless bodies through the swamp and creeks to ambulances.
“The first thing I remember was the sounds, with the people callin’ for help.” He shook his head, sadly. “I saw a hand moving up and down, out of the wreckage and heard, ‘get me out.’”
Under the scarce light of a half moon and armed with whatever flash lights they could find, they pulled out 20 survivors and six dead bodies including band leader, Ronnie Van Zant.
Van Zant was born and raised in Jacksonville, Fla., as were other band members. According to one of the group’s backup singers in an interview for a documentary aired on Showtime, “If I Leave Here Tomorrow,” years prior to the crash, Ronnie took to calling himself, “This ol’ Mississippi boy.”
One day she asked, “Why do you call yourself a Mississippi boy? You’re from Jacksonville.”
He just smiled mysteriously. Then, it would come to be that Ronnie Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Mississippi would be linked forever.
As the 40th anniversary of the crash approached, enough time had passed that the community of heroes began talking about what happened. The Mississippi Blues Trail Commission rejected a request to put a marker near the crash site, saying that Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t qualify as a blues band. The rejection drew the big-hearted heroes into united action, just like that fateful night in 1977.
Bobby McDaniel took on president of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument Project board to organize the fund-raising and development efforts. Dwain Easley and his wife, Lola, volunteered a piece of their 77-acre farm for the tribute site, which is situated a short distance from the 1830 farm house built by Dwain’s ancestors and 400 yards from the crash site.
The group raised $64,000 from 17 countries, cleared the under bush from the Easley land and commissioned Dave Pace of Brookhaven Monument to design several astoundingly beautiful, black granite markers to memorialize the ones who died, with individual monuments etched in the likeness and story of that person as well as other storytelling monuments.
Many were involved. I was blessed to meet only a few – Easley, Brenda Martin, Mike McDaniel (Bobby’s brother) and superfan, Krystina Anderson, who, aside from volunteering overall, regularly brings six yellow roses in tribute.
All agree that it meant so much to see the band’s crew and family, including Van Zant’s widow, Judy, attend the unveiling to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of those who perished.
There will be ongoing costs to keep the landscaping neat and the monuments scrubbed and shining. Since the tribute site is free, the upkeep will depend upon contributions – they plan to place a drop box at the site – which can be made at gofundme.com by typing in Lynyrd Skynyrd or to the Southwest Medical Foundation, P.O. Box 1307, McComb, MS 39649.
It’s quite a story, all of this.
Among what remains, though, is the same community of brave, caring, solid folks who did everything they possibly could on Oct. 20, 1977.
They’ve become even stronger and more compassionate over time.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Let Me Tell You Something.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.