Thick clouds hang low and leaden over the snow crusted stubble
field as he steps from the car and braces against the bitter
Iowa morning. The lifting fog reveals a desolate plain, a season
earlier lush with waving crops, now frozen, and forbidding. On the indistinct horizon behind him, between the frosted ground and slate sky, sits the farmhouse of Albert Juhl.  In the distance before him,
a thin barbwire line is drawn across the open plain. He shuts the car door and crunches his way through the shallow snow. Step by heavy step, he makes his way toward an odd place at the distant fence – a strange, dark spot against the long straight line, like a period in the middle of a sentence.  As he draws closer it becomes more clear - a tangled mass with a peculiar protrusion. Laden with thick winter clothes he struggles across the quiet plain until he comes upon a deep scar in the snow. He follows it with a growing urgency toward the strange ball piled against the fence. Strewn along the way he passes curious bits of metal,  parts of an instrument panel and finally,   a  large  piece  of  an airplane wing. Closer, he comes upon a man’s shoe and a small suitcase. He trudges the final steps to the wreckage and stops. In the awful silence of the lonesome morning he surveys the sickening scene before him: a tangled ball of wreckage heaped against the barbed wire fence, a person’s gray, frozen legs protruding from it; the mangled body of teenage a boy lying face down
in the bloody snow a few feet from the wreckage; a second body, clad in a ripped yellow jacket and mutilated, much of the head missing, a few feet from the first; a third, larger body, flung into the adjacent field beyond the fence prone and frozen. He picks up a small pocket case and wipes off the snow to read the engraving on the side: “Ritchie Valens.” Alone on the barren plain, he is the only person who knows what minutes later will stun the world.
Fine snow drifts lightly over the pallid bodies.
It is the morning of February 3, 1959 – the day the music died.     

   Harbor House
   Hardcover: 230 pg.    ISBN: 1891799045

Available at your favorite bookstore and online at

For signed copy of
the book contact  
author Rich Everitt


Near Dekalb, Texas, 1985
Late afternoon on the last day of the year, schoolteacher Debbie Foster is playing dolls with her 2-year-old daughter Tiffany in their rural farmhouse. Without warning, Tiffany begins to cry. A low rumble, she says, is hurting her ears. Probably just a big truck coming down the country road, Debbie reassures the child, but the noise grows louder and suddenly the entire house shakes from a deep thunder. Foster jumps up - what kind of truck? - and is stunned to see the window filled by the landing gear of a roaring airplane falling from the sky just feet from her roof, billowing smoke and dripping fire. It clips two poles by the road, hits the ground, and careens toward a pasture of scattering cows; trees shear the wings down to the engine nacelles and slow the plane’s roll until finally it lumbers to a smoking halt. Foster can’t believe what she’s sees: in the field across the road a large cargo plane sits perfectly upright on it’s landing gear, stubs for wings, the left prop still spinning, and smoke spewing furiously from the fuselage. It is then she realizes her own yards – front and back – are on fire. She rushes to the telephone, but the crashing plane has clipped the lines. With a strange airplane smoldering across the road and fire rapidly surrounding her house, Foster flees her home with Tiffany in arm.

L.B. Barrett and his son, Randy abandon their cattle in a nearby field and rush to the airplane. What they find is astonishingly surreal – the airplane, badly damaged and smoking angrily, is resting incongruently upright on its landing gear, the left engine running as though ready for take-off, minus wings and full of fire. The pilot, his skin and clothes charred, falls from the left side cockpit window, picks himself up and runs away from the burning machine toward the Barrett’s. Before they can speak he frantically barks orders: call the fire department; there are more people trapped in the plane; we need ambulances; Life Flight. As they try to calm him, the co-pilot, hideously burned, appears like an apparition, walking toward them through the tall grass.

Donald Lewis rushes up on his John Deere and is greeted by the explosion of the airplane’s overheated tires. Seconds later, Don Ruggles lands his private helicopter near the crash. He, too, has witnessed the horror, but from the air.

Oblivious to his injuries the pilot provides his wife’s phone number for Lewis with orders to call her immediately and let her know he is ok, then returns to sit with his horribly burned co-pilot on a slight hill nearby.

They watch, helpless, and in agony as fire screams like blowtorches from every opening in the fuselage. What they – and only they – know is, when firemen arrive, they will find inside the smoldering hull the remains of the man for whom the phrase “Teen Idol” was invented, along with his fiancé and every musician in his popular band: Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band.

As they hear the first ambulance coming down the road, the pilot turns to his co-pilot with a final urgent order: Don’t tell anyone about the heater.


October 20, 1977, Gillsburg, MS
They are standing in the muck at the edge of a primordial swamp, drawn from nearby homes by the shaft of light hovering in the distance, beaming down into the thick pines that, along with snakes and alligators, infest these wet lowlands of southern Mississippi. Squinting into the dusk, they see more lights arrive over the swamp. The sound accompanying those lights - a rumbling “whoomp, whoomp, whoop” – is barely perceptible, but grows louder as they approach, finally becoming a blowing hurricane as the helicopters pass overhead to land in a nearby field. Other sounds are coming down “Slaughter House Road,” the gravel two-lane that leads to the swamp, the distant rumble and wail of vehicles - ambulances, police cars, trooper cars, and cars filled with the curious and concerned. Some screech up, others bog down, but eventually, carload-by-carload, they disembark and make their way down to the others standing in the muck, a growing gathering peering at the luminous shaft shining down above the trees. Those with official responsibilities fling open their trunks and collect their gear. Others, driven by duty, curiosity or larceny, have begun wading through a waist deep creek into the swamp and toward the light. Dozens of small groups gather here and there, whispering and pointing. As anxious minutes pass, the gaps between them fill - a steady flow of people, hundreds milling about, gesturing towards the swamp and whispering, “Is it true?”

Rescuers slog through the muddy slush, weaving through the ghostly dancing shadows cast by the brilliant light of the helicopters hovering over the crash site. In the thrashing wind and thunderous roar beneath it, they find a gruesome swath of airplane parts and people - more than two dozen dead, dying and desperately injured. They fight their way through the debris and muck to the front of the wreckage, and find the nose cone. Inside both pilots are dead. Just below the pilot’s window is a freshly painted logo that reads, “LYNYRD SKYNYRD”.

At the edge of the swamp car radios blare the bulletin: the hottest touring rock band in the world, the hard drinking, hard living, bad boys of Southern Rock have crashed in a Mississippi swamp. Five people, including founder and front man Ronnie Van Zant, are dead.

Disc jockeys around the world break format to pay tribute. Universally they begin with the mournful guitar of the Southern Rock anthem, Freebird and Ronnie Van Zant’s opening lyric, “If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?”


John Denver closes the bubble canopy and muffles the outside roar. Snug in the fighter-jet-like cockpit, he tunes the aircraft radio to the ground control frequency and keys the microphone, identifying himself by the Long EZ's “N” number - N555JD - which Denver had specially requested from the FAA to incorporate his own initials.

Denver: Ground (control) this is, uh, five five five Juliet Delta at the big hangar at, uh, Delmonte East. (Request permission to)Taxi for take-off with information.
Ground Controller: Long Easy five five five Juliet Delta, Monterey Ground, taxi to runaway two eight left and say direction or destination as requested.
Denver: Uh, runway two eight left and I’m going to stay in the pattern, uh, and do some, uh, touch and goes.
Ground Controller: Long Easy five Juliet Delta squawk one two zero zero and taxi to runway two eight left….and, uh, Tower will assign pattern direction and landing runway.
Denver: Thank you very much, sir.

Denver taxis the Long EZ to the end of runway 28 Left – the west departure runway. He completes his final “pre-departure” checklist then dials in a different radio frequency to call the airport’s Control Tower and keys the mic again.

Denver: Tower, this is Long Easy triple five Juliet Delta, ready for takeoff, two eight left. Like to stay in the pattern and do some landings, touch and goes.
Tower: Long Easy triple five Juliet Delta, Monterey Tower, hold short of the runway, landing traffic.
Denver: Roger, Juliet Delta.

Denver waits on the taxiway and watches another airplane touch down, roll to the far end, and exit. The Tower calls Denver and tells him move his airplane onto the runway and await instructions.

Tower: Long Easy five Juliet Delta, runway two eight left, taxi into position and hold.
Denver: Position and hold.

Denver eases the throttle forward. The small plane creeps to the centerline of the runaway and pivots west toward Monterey Bay. He stops and waits. In front of him, beyond the canopy, nose cone, and canard, lays a mile and a half stretch of runway, and beyond that a place in the distance where the blue Pacific blends seamlessly with the autumn sky, all of it bathed in the amber glow of late afternoon. It’s a beautiful day to go flying.

Copyright 2004     Rich Everitt      All Rights Reserved
Developed by