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Munich Air Disaster: The plane crash that killed Manchester United players and staff in 1958

PA
By
06 February 2021
M

ore than 60 years ago, tragedy struck the world of football when a plane carrying Manchester United players crashed in thick snow at Munich Airport.

A total of 23 people lost their lives as a result of the disaster, including eight Manchester United footballers, who had been dubbed the Busby Babes for their sporting success.

The tragedy, which happened as the team were making were their way back from a European Cup game, not only rocked football but the wider world too with journalists and club staff among the dead.

Here's what happened in the Munich Air Disaster.

In early 1958, Manchester United made it through to the semi-finals of the European Cup after beating Red Star Belgrade.

The following day the squad, club staff, journalists and a number of other passengers boarded their British European Airways plane in Belgrade airport to fly back to Manchester. At around 1.15pm the plane, a six-year-old Airspeed Ambassador 2, landed in Munich for a brief stopover to refuel.

After the aircraft had been refuelled the crew twice attempted to take off, failing due to engine problems.

By this time, it had begun to snow heavily and it looked increasingly likely that the flight would be delayed until the next day. However, the crew was eager to keep on schedule and a third attempt at taking off was made.

But by now the snow had caused the runway to be carpeted in a thick blanket of slush, which slowed the plane down so much that it could not reach a high enough speed to take off.

As a result, aircraft skidded at the end of the runway, crashing through a fence surrounding the airport and into a nearby house.

Thick flames began to envelope the plane as the house caught fire, before a hut filled with tyres and fuel exploded.

Twenty passengers died in the immediate tragedy, with three dying later in hospital. Seven Manchester United players died at the scene, and an eighth, Duncan Edwards, died 15 days later in hospital.

Survivors attempted to save as many passengers as they could, with Bobby Charlton, Dennis Viollet and goalkeeper Harry Gregg among those saved. The pilot James Thain survived but co-pilot Captain Kenneth Rayment died from his injuries five weeks later.

Gregg is heralded for his role in not only dragging team-mates Sir Bobby and Viollet out of the burning wreckage by their waistbands, but also by saving a 20-month-old baby and her badly injured, pregnant mother - Vera Lukic, the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat.

The goalkeeper returned twice to the burning fuselage to rescue people, and his bravery has been formally hailed in Germany and Serbia, home to the rescued Lukic.

An initial investigation blamed Thain, and German airport authorities attempted legal action against him. However, he was cleared a decade later when subsequent investigations revealed that the crash was caused by the slush on the runway which slowed down the aircraft.

It decimated the club, with a hugely promising generation lost, particularly the colossal talent that was Edwards. While Busby recovered, assistant manager Jimmy Murphy took the club's makeshift side to that season's FA Cup final, although they lost to Bolton Wanderers.

Busby nearly quit football but what is so remarkable about Munich is the way he rebuilt the club. Within five years his new side did indeed win the FA Cup, sparking United's glorious run in the 60s that included two league titles and, poignantly, the European Cup 10 years after Munich.

Fatalities

Manchester United players

  • Geoff Bent
  • Roger Byrne
  • Eddie Colman
  • Duncan Edwards
  • Mark Jones
  • David Pegg
  • Tommy Taylor
  • Liam "Billy" Whelan

Manchester United staff

  • Walter Crickmer - club secretary
  • Tom Curry - trainer
  • Bert Whalley - chief coach

Crew

  • Captain Kenneth Rayment
  • Tom Cable

Journalists

  • Alf Clarke
  • Donny Davies
  • George Follows
  • Tom Jackson
  • Archie Ledbrooke
  • Henry Rose
  • Frank Swift
  • Eric Thompson

Other passengers

  • Bela Miklos
  • Willie Satinoff