This Tragic Event Shook The Soccer World In 1958, But Brought The Sport’s Fiercest Rivals Together
On a snowy night in February of 1958, a plane carrying Manchester United's football (soccer) team skidded off the Munich runway during an attempted takeoff, killing more than 20 passengers. Among the dead were reporters, aircraft personnel, and eight Manchester players. Numerous others were injured. In the days following, some of the injured crash victims died in the hospital while the rest of the Munich air disaster survivors attempted to put their lives and the team back together.
At the time of the Manchester United air crash, the team was in the midst of the European Cup, recently advanced to the semi-finals. Speculation was rampant: would the team continue in the tournament? Would United even last as a team, or would they fold? As a precursor to later soccer-related tragedies - like the Hillsborough disaster - the Munich air disaster was exemplary of unprecedented sportsmanship, strength, and tribute.
Manchester United's Plane Crashed On Its Third Attempt To Take Off
On February 6, 1958, Captain James Thain and his co-pilot, Kenneth Rayment, made three unsuccessful takeoff attempts. On the third try, the aircraft managed to achieve full power. As they made their way down the runway, measuring a little more than a mile, however, the plane skidded off the path. It crashed into a home, as well as a truck containing fuel and highly combustible tires, resulting in an explosion. The plane itself disintegrated, and there were small fires throughout the wreckage.
The Goalkeeper Helped Rescue Other Passengers
Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg was knocked unconscious during the crash. When he began to revive moments later, he noticed a hole in the plane's siding. After he took off his seatbelt, he kicked out the hole to enlarge it and lowered himself to the ground. There, he was amid the debris and casualties, standing in the snow while the crew shouted at him to flee the plane.
Gregg did the opposite. Determined to help anyone who was still alive, he went back in. According to one version of the event, Gregg found the 20-month-old daughter of a Yugoslavian Air Force officer whose wife and child were on board. Gregg grabbed the bundle, took the baby to safety, and returned to rescue her mother.
Eight Members Of Manchester United And 15 Others Died As A Result Of The Crash
At the time of the crash, there were 44 people on board. When the aircraft went off of the runway, 21 people died instantly. Seven members of Manchester United's "front 11" starting players died on impact. The athletes involved in the tragedy were team captain Roger Byrne, David Pegg, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, Geoff Bent, and Liam Whelan. Duncan Edwards passed away two weeks later from his injuries.
Additionally, eight British journalists and several Manchester United staff members perished in the crash. In addition to fatalities, 19 passengers suffered injuries, including the sports team's manager Matt Busby. Co-pilot Rayment died months later from sustained damage to his brain.
The Pilot Almost Abandoned Efforts To Take Off From Munich, Which Would Have Avoided The Crash
After eliminating Red Star Belgrade, the Serbian soccer team, from the European Cup on February 5, 1958, the Manchester United team joined reporters and supporters on board their plane returning to England. Along the way, the small plane stopped in Munich, Germany, to refuel.
Captain Thain attempted a takeoff, but encountered difficulties with the aircraft's pressure gauges. After a second attempt, the passengers de-boarded the plane and went to the airport lounge. There was talk of waiting until the next day to try again - the team even sent word back to England they'd likely take a day to return home. Eventually, however, the passengers boarded the plane once more for an ill-fated attempt at takeoff.
Only Two Of Manchester United's Team Members Were Able To Play After The Crash
The Manchester United team - nicknamed the "Busby Babes" after their coach, Matt Busby - suffered a huge loss in manpower in the Munich crash. Only two players were physically able to play: Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes. The team's interim manager, Jimmy Murphy, stepped in for injured Coach Busby. Other players came from reserves and clubs such as Bishop Auckland, which transferred players over to Manchester on short-term contracts. Bishop Auckland's best player and captain, Bob Hardisty, also made the move.
Former WWII Pilot James Thain Was Blamed For The Crash
In the immediate aftermath of the Munich crash, German authorities determined Captain Thain was responsible for the crash. According to investigators, Thain failed to have the plane properly de-iced before takeoff.
They said the airplane was thickly blanketed with snow, especially from the wings. In their final report, investigators stated, "Apart from the ice, we couldn't find any other reason which could have contributed to the air crash."
Thain was an experienced Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot who had served during WWII, as had his co-pilot, Rayment. Thain ultimately walked away from the crash, but Rayment was seriously injured and died months later.