When the smoking wreck of BEA flight 609 finally came to a halt, the oldest pilot scribbled free to find one of his surviving passengers who were watching the disaster closely.
“Run, you stupid bastard,” he ordered the young man. “It’s going to explode!”
But Harry Gregg didn’t run. He was even furious to see a number of other survivors withdrawing to safety.
“Come on guys, let’s get stuck in it,” Gregg shouted to their backs. “There are still people on the plane.”
And back in the horror and massacre, the great Irish goalkeeper collapsed. He had to save lives this time.
Harry Gregg, who died this week at the age of 87, wanted to be remembered as a footballer instead of a hero. But his actions in the afternoon of February 6, 1958 saw him transcend merely sporting greatness – which he possessed – to show himself to be a really great person.
Horror: Harry Gregg (left), who died this week at the age of 87, was a member of the Manchester United squad aboard an Airspeed Ambassador charter plane that crashed when taking off at Munich-Riem airport
He was a member of the Manchester United squad aboard an Airspeed Ambassador charter plane that crashed when taking off at Munich-Riem airport while returning from a European Cup tie in Yugoslavia.
Eight United players and three club officials were killed as a result of their injuries. Another 12 crew members, journalists and other passengers lost their lives.
Several United survivors could no longer play football and the Munich air disaster saw the premature end of the great young team put together by manager Matt Busby; a team that became known as the Busby Babes.
The tragedy could have been worse if Gregg and the people he had been in the first rescue operations had not been.
How quickly triumph can turn into a disaster. Gregg and his teammates had left a snowy Belgrade that morning.
The previous evening they had played a 3-3 draw with Red Star. They had seen 2 goals from 18-year-old Bobby Charlton 3-0 during the break. After winning the first stage 2-1 in Old Trafford, they were through to the semi-final of the European Cup, the stage they had reached the year before.
The wreck of the Flight 609 is in the snow. The plane, with the Manchester United football team, crashed at the airport during a heavy snowstorm
This was a team of prodigies. They had been champion of England for the past two seasons. Ulsterman Gregg was the newest addition. United had paid Doncaster Rovers just £ 23,000 for him two months earlier, then a world record for a keeper.
The ambassador could not fly non-stop between Belgrade and Manchester and would have to stop in Munich to refuel.
On the first leg of the flight, Gregg, 25, was invited to participate in the ‘card school’ of the player who had gathered in the middle of the plane.
But he was tired and wanted to use up his Yugoslavian currency instead of playing for British dollars like his teammates. After some leg pulling, he returned to his seat in front of the plane.
“It was that quick decision that probably saved his life,” wrote Frank Taylor, one of the journalist’s survivors, in his book The Day A Team Died. Those who were against the nose survived the massacre.
When the plane landed on Munich, there was snow on the ground. It had turned brown on the runway and the wheels threw a ‘bow wave’ when the plane landed.
Vera Lukic, the wife of the Yugoslav air academy in London and her baby daughter Vesna, is reunited with her husband
Gregg and the other passengers alighted for the warmth of the airport’s transit lounge, where they drank tea and smoked tea before returning to the plane.
The countdown to the tragedy had begun. The plane started its first attempt at 2.30 pm and 30 seconds local time. The engines roared, the snow wave’s bow wave reappeared and they gathered speed. Then the brakes were suddenly applied and the plane stopped halfway the runway.
The two pilots – James Thain and Ken Rayment, both ex-RAF – had broken down because they had noticed an uneven engine block and a fluctuation in the ‘boost pressure’. Nothing serious though.
They tried again. The time was now 14.34 hours and 40 seconds. Again the throttle was opened wide, again the plane only tore off the runway to abort the start for the point of no return. On this occasion, a flight attendant announced that they would return to the terminal for a “minor mechanical error” that needed to be corrected.
“Does anyone know good hotels in Munich?” someone was joking.
But they had barely settled in the warmth of the living room when a loudspeaker asked them back to the plane.
Peter Howard, a Daily Mail photographer who was traveling with the party, asked the players to pose for a photo. It would be their last. The Babes only had 15 minutes to live together.
At 3:02 pm exactly the control tower warned Flight 609 “Your permission invalid if not in the air at zero four.” In other words, if they did not take off successfully within two minutes, they would lose their slot. In the meantime, the atmosphere in the passenger cabin was extremely tense, Gregg recalled.
That summer, Gregg played for Northern Ireland in the World Cup Final in Sweden and was called goalkeeper of the tournament
“Roger Byrne, our captain, was sitting in the chair next to the window and he looked terrified,” he said.
The silence was broken by a nervous grin and another teammate, Johnny Berry, said, “I don’t know what you’re laughing at, we’re all dying here.”
Harry put down the book he was reading – a thriller that was considered fast for his time. “I thought if I died if I read it, I would go to hell right away,” he remembered.
‘I loosened my tie and my pants, sat down low in my chair and sat down against the chair in front of me. A woman with a little girl stood in front of me. ”
These were Vera Lukic, the wife of the Yugoslav air academy in London and her baby daughter Vesna.
15:03 and six seconds – less than a minute before they would lose their slot – the flight deck of Flight 609 said: “Rolling”
“Roger,” the tower replied.
There was a ‘roaring roar’ when the engines got power for the third time. Captain Thain would later tell the German accident investigation that when the speed indicator reached 117 knots, this inexplicably dropped to 105.
He looked up and realized that the job was finished and in that split second, co-pilot Captain Rayment heard: “Christ. . . we are not going to make it! “
Captain Thain would be blamed for the crash. But it was later determined that accumulated snow mash on the runway prevented the aircraft from reaching its starting speed.
The plane crashed through the perimeter fence of the airport and hit a house that tore off the harbor wing. Further on it collided with a hut on a concrete base that separated the rear trunk from the rest.
The front section – containing Gregg, Charlton and others – continued to slide forward and turned as the lake touched trees and threw injured passengers in the snow.
Gregg remembered, “When I saw the wheels begin to lift out of the snow, there was a sudden blow. Anxious! There was no screaming, only the terrible metal cracks. Sparks burst all around and then something broke in my skull like a hard-boiled egg. The salty taste of blood was in my mouth and I was terrified of holding my hands to my head.
“I hadn’t realized I was standing by my side until I tried to crawl to a light. As I did that, I noticed that the coach of the youth team, Bert Whalley, was lying on the floor below me. His eyes were wide open. I knew he was dead.
“For a moment I thought I was the only one alive, but in the distance I saw five people running away in the snow.”
It was then that Captain Thain told him to become clear. But Gregg had heard the sound of a baby crying and climbed back into the wreckage to pick up 22-month-old Vesna Lukic, who was injured – she lost sight of an eye – but alive. He handed her to a flight attendant and returned to the plane to pick up her mother, who was three months pregnant.
Mrs. Lukic was terribly wounded with a broken skull and both legs broken. He had to lie on his back and push her through a hole with his feet. She survived. He then started trying to save his teammates.
“When I discovered Albert (Scanlon), his injuries were so serious that I had to prevent me from getting sick,” he recalled.
“I soon found Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet half in and half out of what was left of the plane. I thought they were dead too, but I pulled them free.
“I found the boss (Busby). He was conscious and didn’t look too bad at what I had seen before. He rubbed his chest and moaned, “My legs, my legs.” His foot pointed in the wrong direction.
“Then I found my friend Jackie Blanchflower who thought he was paralyzed because he couldn’t move his legs. This was due to the fact that Roger Byrne was draped over his legs.
Roger’s eyes were wide open and he was dead. “After rescuing Charlton, Viollet, Busby, and Blanchflower, as well as the wife of the Yugoslav air raid and her baby, Gregg went to the hospital with the victims.
“Eventually,” he recalled, “a man came in a coal van and we got Jackie and little Johnny Berry and the boss. We boarded the van, with bits of coal that circled, and left for the hospital. “
“I remember when we arrived at the hospital, Bill Foulkes and I were asked to try and identify people. I was shocked when I found goalkeeper Ray Wood, his eye hung from the bowl. “
Gregg added, “Then I heard in Tannoy Hospital that they were announcing the death of victims.
“Those words shocked me deeply. Only when I heard those words did the tragedy and the enormous extent of what had happened finally hit me. “
But within 13 days, Gregg and Foulkes played back for United, in an improvised team of borrowed players and reservists in an FA Cup game against Sheffield Wednesday.
They won and a great stream of emotion and goodwill led them all the way to Wembley. Gregg said that playing so soon after the tragedy helped to maintain common sense.
That summer, Gregg played for Northern Ireland in the World Cup Final in Sweden and was called goalkeeper of the tournament.
His later career would be interrupted by injuries and further personal tragedies – his first wife Mavis died of cancer in 1961. (He remarried in 1965 and had four children with second wife Carolyn.)
But the world would not let him forget his role in the loss of a gilt football team, also taken too early.
“For those who survived the crash, it was mental harassment that was the real injury,” he once admitted. ‘We have all fought a constant battle against sadness, guilt and ultimately in many cases bitterness.
“For decades there was a cloud hanging over me. I was always tagged with the “Hero of Munich” but the debt to survive always made that title hard to live with. “