The Munich air disaster, the plane crash that killed eight Manchester United players and three team staff members, is still seen to this day as one of the greatest tragedies in the history of sports. A dozen additional people died in the incident, including the co-pilot and a number of well-respected journalists.
There were, however, 21 survivors, and at least a few of them owed their lives to Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who risked his own safety in order to help evacuate passengers.
Manchester United was returning from Yugoslavia following a European Cup match with Red Star Belgrade
Led by manager Matt Busby, Manchester United was seen as one of the favorites heading into the 1957-1958 European Cup. The team was extremely young, which earned them the nickname the “Busby Babes,” but the club was full of talented players that had reached the semifinals of the prestigious tournament the year before, where they lost to eventual champion Real Madrid.
On February 5, 1958, Manchester United was in Yugoslavia for a match with Red Star Belgrade with a chance to get back to the semifinals. The two clubs battled to a 3-3 draw but the Red Devils were given the slot due to the 5-4 advantage they held on aggregate.
The team had chartered a British European Airways plane for the trip but their flight out of Belgrade on February 6 was delayed by more than an hour when forward Johnny Berry lost his passport. The flight then had to stop in Munich, Germany, to refuel and that’s when disaster struck.
Eight Manchester United players and three staff members were killed in the Munich air disaster
Flying conditions certainly weren’t great around Munich that day as the city was experiencing a snowstorm. To make matters worse, one of the plane’s pilots, Captain James Thain, abandoned the first two takeoff attempts after refueling due to engine troubles. The Manchester United players, staff, and the numerous other passengers on board went back to the airport lounge but were called back to the plane about 15 minutes later as the crew wanted to stay as close to on schedule as possible.
By this time, there was quite a bit of snow on the ground but the plane was given permission to take off anyway. However, slush had built up on the runway and the plane could not reach the necessary speed to take off. It slid off the runway, crashed through a fence surrounding the airport, and went across a neighboring road before plowing into a house, tearing off the left wing and setting both the house and plane on fire. The three people in the house escaped uninjured.
Of the 44 people on board the plane, 20 died at the scene while three others, including co-pilot Captain Kenneth Rayment and Manchester United player Duncan Edwards, passed away in the ensuing weeks as a result of their injuries. In total, eight Manchester United players (Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Billy Whelan) were killed.
Club secretary Walter Crickmer, trainer Tom Curry, and chief coach Bert Whalley were also killed. Matt Busby suffered numerous injuries and was in critical condition for many weeks.
In the years that followed, Manchester United brought legal action against British European Airways and the case was eventually settled out of court.
Goalkeeper Harry Gregg saved numerous lives that day
The final death total in the Munich air disaster was ultimately 23 people but could have been higher had it not been for the heroic actions of Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg.
Gregg had been knocked unconscious in the collision but when he came to, he kicked through the plane to escape but went back in on two occasions to help save anyone he could. He saved the lives of teammates Dennis Viollet, who passed away in 1999, and Bobby Charlton, who went on to win a World Cup title with England in 1966 and is considered one of the greatest players in Manchester United history. He’s still alive to this day.
Gregg, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 87, also rescued Vera Lukic, the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat who was pregnant at the time of the crash, and her 20-month-old child.