On January 28, 2009, the keyboardist died at the age of 56 at his home in Orange Park, Florida. Powell called 911 at 12:55 a.m., complaining of shortness of breath. He missed his appointment with the doctor on the day before his death; the appointment was for a checkup on his heart. The EMS responders found Powell unconscious and unresponsive, with the telephone still in his hand. Rescue crews performed CPR, but he was pronounced dead at 1:52 am. A heart attack was the suspected cause of death, but an autopsy was not performed.
On Thursday, October 20, 1977, just three days after the release of Street Survivors, and five shows into their most successful headlining tour to date, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s chartered Convair 240 developed mechanical difficulties near the end of their flight from Greenville, South Carolina to LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Though the pilots attempted an emergency landing on a small
airstrip, the plane crashed in a forest five miles northeast of Gillsburg, Mississippi. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were all killed on impact. Medical personnel arrived quickly and began to ferry out the injured and the dead. Victims were taken to the hospital in nearby McComb and Jackson by ambulances and other vehicles. Allen Collins suffered two cracked vertebrae in his neck, and both Collins and Leon Wilkeson nearly had their arms amputated as a result of crash injuries. Wilkeson suffered severe internal injuries, including a punctured lung, and had most of his teeth knocked out. Gary Rossington broke both of his arms, his right leg and his pelvis in the crash, as well as sustaining puncture wounds to his stomach and liver, and took many months to recuperate. Leslie Hawkins sustained a concussion (which led to ongoing neurological problems), broke her neck in three places and had severe facial lacerations. Road crew member Steve Lawler suffered severe contusions and facial lacerations. Security manager Gene Odom was seriously burned on his arm and face and lost the sight in one eye as a result of an emergency flare on board the plane that was activated during the crash. Keyboardist Billy Powell’s nose was nearly torn off as he suffered severe facial lacerations (as well as deep lacerations to his right knee), and he later caused a controversy by giving a lurid account of Cassie Gaines’ final moments on a VH1 Behind The Music special about the band, claiming that the backup singer’s throat was cut from ear to ear and that she bled to death in his arms. Powell also claimed that Ronnie Van Zant’s head had been smashed. Powell’s version of events has been discounted by both Artimus Pyle and Judy Van Zant Jenness, who posted the autopsy reports on the band’s website in early 1998 in order to set the record straight. Despite this faux pas, Powell remained on good terms with the remaining band members since the incident, but was castigated in print by Pyle and Van Zant Jenness for needlessly upsetting the Gaines family.