The death of former Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Harry Gregg led to a flood of tributes, with many recalling his role in the Munich air disaster and his incredible return to football just 13 days later.
Gregg passed away on Sunday surrounded by his family at Causeway Hospital in Northern Ireland, aged 87, having been one of the 20 survivors of the 1958 tragedy when BEA Flight 609 crashed on its third take-off attempt at Munich-Riem Airport.
Twenty-three people including eight of the Manchester United team died as a result of the disaster, though it is widely considered that there would have been more fatalities had it not been for the heroics of Gregg. The goalkeeper returned to the burning fuselage twice to help the injured, and rescued Sir Bobby Charlton, Jackie Blanchflower and Dennis Viollet, as well as manager Sir Matt Busby and the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat and her 20-month-old daughter.
Gregg declined medical assistance upon his arrival at a nearby hospital as the seriously wounded were tended to, and he along with the rest of the survivors who were able to walk were asked to identify those who had died in the accident.
Gregg recalled those moments before, during and after the disaster in Eamon Dunphy’s A Strange Kind of Glory: Sir Matt Busby & Manchester United, which was released 33 years after the crash in 1991.
“When we came into Munich to refuel we did not see the ground until we were about to touch down because of the very low cloud. As refuelling took a little while, we were able to get off the aircraft and have coffee and buy some odds and ends at the terminal.
“After we had all reboarded we started to take off. I was looking out of the window and saw the wheels locking, slewing the plane round. Captain Thain said that there was a technical fault and apologised for the delay, saying he would try another take-off immediately. This did not work either, and the pilot braked and took the plane back to the terminal. We all got off the plane again and went back into the terminal buildings, where we all sat around waiting for the plane to be ready again. I remember buying some Players cigarettes and discussing with the others how we would get back by boat via the Hook of Holland. Nobody took this suggestion seriously and we all had a good laugh, despite the fact that there was a certain amount of tension amongst us. The first two attempts to take off had been quite unnerving and for me possibly more frightening than the third time, as I had been watching the wheels sticking in the slush.
“When we got back into the plane some of us were quite nervy. I saw the steward actually strapped into his seat when we got on, which was not very reassuring! Alf Clarke was late getting back to the plane and we had to wait for him. I was quite worried by this time. I sat very low in my seat, opened my trousers and my collar and sank down into the seat with my legs up. I tried to crack a few jokes but Johnny Berry, who was sitting near me, was too anxious to be amused by them and said he thought we would all be killed. Billy Whelan, who was sitting next to him, said ‘Well, if that’s going to happen, ‘I’m ready for it'.
“We set off once again. I remember looking out of the window and seeing a tree and a house passing by and suddenly we were passing places we had not done before. Everything went black all of a sudden and sparks began to fly. I was hit hard on the back of the head and I thought the top of my skull had been cut off. The plane seemed to turn on its side, sort of upside down. There was no crying. There was just silence and blackness and then for a second there was daylight again. I thought I was dead, so I sat there quietly and a strange idea passed through my mind. I remember thinking I had had a great life and a wonderful family and I couldn’t speak German.
“There was a great hissing noise all around me and I realised that I was still alive and lying on my side in my seat. I unfastened my seatbelt and began to climb out. There was still no sounds apart from this tremendous hissing. Captain Thain suddenly appeared holding a small fire extinguisher and told me to run for it. I was about to take his advice when I heard a child crying, so I crawled back into the wreckage. People outside were shouting ‘Get out, get out, run for it!” I shouted to them to come back as there were people alive inside. I found the baby and started to carry it out. The radio operator took the child from me and I went back into the debris and found the mother, but she was in a bad conditions. I found Albert Scanlon, who was badly hurt, and I tried to get him out too, but he was trapped by his feet and I couldn’t move him. Peter Howards, the Daily Mail photographer was with Albert, keeping him company.
I had never seen death before and never wanted to see it again
“I ran round to the back of the plane and found Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet lying in a pool of water. I thought they were dead and dragged their bodies, like rag dolls, into the seats which had been thrown about 20 yards from the plane. I started calling for Jackie (Blanchflower). As I searched for him I saw the tail end of the plane ablaze with flames. I found Matt Busby, who was conscious but holding his chest in pain. He was propped up on his elbow and did not look too badly hurt although his foot was broken. I left him and found Blanchie, who was sitting up to his waist in water. Roger was close by him. Jackie’s arm was bleeding badly, so I tied a tourniquet on it with my tie. I pulled so hard that I snapped my tie in half but managed to tie his arm with the bit that was left.
“Suddenly a man in a long overcoat arrived carrying a syringe. I shouted to him to go and help the injured in the aircraft, but suddenly there were some explosions from the burning half of the plane and the force of them threw this doctors off his feet. He was a strange sight, falling on his backside in the snow, with his legs in the air, still holding that syringe in his hand.
“I turned round and got the shock of my life, for there were Dennis and Bobby standing, just watching the fire. I was so relieved, as I had been sure that they were dead. Shortly after this, when it looked as though the rescuers had everything under control, I sank to my knees and wept, thanking God that some of us had been saved. I had never seen death before and never wanted to see it again.”