Mary Thornton, a critical care nurse at Southwest Mississippi Regional hospital in McComb, where Lynyrd Skynyrd band members were taken following a crash in nearby Gillsburg, and Lisa Dickerson hurried from the car we were exiting, toward a friend standing at the band’s tribute site.
“I can’t believe you’re here, Brenda. I want you to meet someone.”
Lisa introduced us and I explained that I’m a columnist interested in doing an article about the community and the plane crash for no other reason than it was a story of good people doing good.
Brenda looked around, past several fans who had stopped by, and said, “Dwain just left. You need to talk to him because he was there, too, and he gave this land.” She picked up her phone, made the call and, within three minutes, a little pick-up truck pulled up. An unassuming, small man in his mid-sixties with salt and pepper hair strolled over. He wore a navy jacket, his name embroidered on the left side.
“I’m Dwain Easley,” he stuck out his hand, speaking in a soft, humble voice. May history always record this: Easley and his neighbors are people of strength, resilience and compassion. On a night when they saw unspeakable horror, untold suffering and at a time when they held death in their arms, no one blinked. They rescued then carried folks out on stretchers through 100 yards of swamp and over a creek because the ambulances couldn’t get in there.
Brenda Martin is a retired rural carrier for the post office, a job she misses a lot. But on October 20, 1977, she was a farmer’s wife, heavy with child, when she heard a helicopter buzzing overhead. Outside, her husband was putting out hay in the pasture while the sun was slipping low and the day was coming to a close. He eyed the helicopter, too.
Suddenly, three long-haired guys in torn tee shirts and jeans came running across the road. The farmer took out his gun and fired into the air, thinking they must be escaped prisoners thus the reason for the helicopters.
“NO! NO! Plane crash!” they cried in desperation, pointing frantically toward the swamp. Nearby, Dwain Easley, who retired as a lifelong employee of International Paper, had answered his home phone to hear his aunt say, “I just seen a big plane go down near your place. There’s a helicopter lookin’ for it.”
Dwain, along with a buddy and every farmer within ear distance, ran toward the accident with no thought of fire or the deadly copperheads that fill the swamp. It wasn’t easy. The plane, a Convair CV-240, was down in a thicket of timber and thick bushes so it was slow going as they broke through.
“I couldn’t believe how big that plane was. The wings and the fuselage were broken completely off so we had to climb up to get to them. The first one I tried to pull out, wouldn’t budge and my buddy hollered, ‘Cut the seat belt!’ I took my pocket knife out. Every time we pulled one body out, we found another underneath it.”
They had no idea that they were rescuing Southern rock and roll stars as they labored from about 6:30 p.m. central to 2 a.m. At one point, a rescuer stopped, wiped the sweat from his brow and asked, “How, in the world, do you reckon these long-haired hippies were able to afford a plane ticket?”
It was only after the volunteers had completed the grim task, and dredged out of the swamp, that they learned who had been on the plane.
“As we come out, we met a 15-year-old boy who was a fan. He said, ‘Y’all know who was on that plane?’ Lynyrd Skynyrd!”
“I knowed who they were because I was 27, 28 and I listened to that kind of music back then.”
His voice trailed off and his eyes softened. “I couldn’t believe it.”
In next week’s final installment, we will hear most of the first responders’ stories.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of Let Me Tell You Something. Please visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for our free weekly newsletter.