[right]Condor[/right]I am writing this piece with a heavy heart and a tear in my eye as I want to explain all I know about the tragedy. This work contains details some readers may wish to avoid. It has been compiled using letters and stories from my family alive at the time and accredited sources and newspaper clipping my family kept from those days. All the facts are undisputed as being accurate. My intention is to provide an accurate history of the events that day so that we do not forgot and that generations later may know the true facts.
This is the tragic series of events....
February 6th, 1958 saw a tragic accident that instantly killed seven players from Manchester United's great Busby Babe team and 14 others including journalists traveling with the team. The accident happened at the airfield at Riem Airport in Munich, West Germany. It was a disaster that shook the world. And made headline news throughout the globe. A British European Airways (BEA) Elizabethan class plane, flight 609 Zulu Uniform had been hired to fly the team from Manchester to Belgrade to play a European Cup quarter final football match against Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia. With 38 passengers and 6 crew members on board the plane crashed on takeoff after refuelling at Munich on the return journey home.
The Flight to Munich
On the morning of Thursday 6th February 1958 the Manchester United players were in high spirits following a 3-3 draw with Red Star Belgrade the night before that had secured progression into the European Cup semi-finals with an aggregate victory. It was the second successive year that the club had reached the semi-finals. Everyone, though, was looking forward to returning home, especially the players and the manager, Matt Busby, as the club had a match to play against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.
The team and coaches were accompanied by several journalists and friends and family. They all assembled at Belgrade airport for the return flight to Manchester scheduled to stop at Munich for refuelling. The aircraft was piloted by 2 captains, James Thain and Ken Rayment who had also flown the team out to Belgrade.
The first part of the journey was relatively pleasant with the rising sunshine flowing through the starboard windows. The forecast at Munich, however, was of low cloud, rain and snow. At approximately 12:15 local time (13:15 GMT) they landed at Munich and taxied along the slush and snow lined runway to the terminal building. On disembarking to the terminal to get some refreshments, some jovial Manchester United players playfully threw snow balls at a German airport worker walking across the wings as he refuelled the plane.
Aborted Attempts to Takeoff
After the completion of departure details the crew and passengers returned to flight 609 and at 13:20 just over 1 hour after arrival, Zulu Uniform called Munich Tower to request taxi clearance for the final leg of the journey to Manchester. The aircraft taxied and lined up for takeoff. As the aircraft moved off Radio Officer Bill Rogers made a call to the tower stating that the run had begun.
Captain Rayment opened up the throttles and the aircraft accelerated with no sign of drag from the snow and slush. Suddenly an "uneven tone" in the engines alarmed Rayment and he abandoned take off. The plane decelerated quickly and slithered to a halt half way down the runway. The problem was diagnosed as “boost surging”. Neither of the two Captains had been happy with the uneven engine noise and were both in agreement over the termination of the take off. "Boost surging" had been experienced by both pilots in the past as the Elizabethan had been prone to the problem since first introduced into service.
Captain Rayment had, himself, experienced similar problems before. He knew to combate boost surging required the throttle to be opened more slowly so a decision was made to immediatly attempt a second time. With departure checks again completed the aircraft, lined up and began another take off attempt. Captain Rayment slowly opened the throttles and the aircraft accelerating down the runway. Captain Thain was scanning the instruments and spotting a rising pressure gauge. He called for the take off to be abandoned. Captain Rayment quickly closed the throttles and applied full brakes and the aircraft once again slowed to taxi speed half way down the runway.
The taxi from the runway back to the terminal was achieved with some difficulty as fresh snow and the remaining slush obscuring parts of the taxiway. Captain Rayment spoke to the cabin crew and passenger over the internal radio to reassure the passengers. In the passenger cabin the team and guests listened attentively to the announcement explaining that a technical fault had prevented departure and it was now necessary to return to the terminal for further checks.
A much more somber party disembarked for a second time, just 20 minutes after they had first attempted departure. Coffee and Tea was ordered for the passengers and soon, any apprehension was dispelled by the larking and joking that surrounds a group of young men. Flight 609 Zulu Uniform was now attracting attention after the two abandoned take off attempts. A number of people, including the Airport Director, were observing the attempts and the final preparations from the viewing gallery and the tower.
A decision to try again was made quickly, inside 10 minutes. The team and passengers were still pouring coffee in the departure lounge when they were summoned. The passengers, a little more reluctantly, boarded the aircraft. There was no tom-foolery this time and the atmosphere was tense. United manager Matt Busby was overheard to say that "it wasn’t so important to get back and get some rest before the game on Saturday. We could leave it until tomorrow".
As the passengers settled to their seats at around 16:00 local time; the door was sealed and Captain Rayment spoke once again to the passenger over the internal radio. The passengers were informed that the technical fault had been resolved and they would shortly be on their way. The flight time was to have been just under three hours, and with the one hour time change, they would arrive in Manchester at 18:00.
The Final Attempt
The aircraft moved across the tarmac for the three minute taxi to the runway as the final departure checks were being completed. A final exchange between the captains agreed that Captain Thain would closely observe the engine instruments and adjust the throttle himself if any surge occurred.
The plane accelerated. At around 85kph Captain Thain reported that the port engine was surging. While Captain Thain dealt with this, Captain Rayment transferred to rudder control as the rudder became fully effective with the increase in speed. Captain Rayment now pulled gently back on the control column to lift the nose wheel free from the slush in preparation for take off but was only achieved with difficulty. Meanwhile Captain Thain eased the left throttle back until the surge ceased. Slowly, the port throttle was pushed open until on full power. Both boost pressures now showed the surging resolved. Captain Thain confirmed to the tower that full power was set with temperatures and pressures ok then returned his attention to the airspeed indicator. The aircraft was accelerating slowly but with attention on the instruments, this did not register with Captain Thain. He watched the airspeed indicator move slowly up the dial. At 117 kph Captain Thain called out “V1”, meaning they had reached the point of no return. There was now insufficient runway to stop and they were committed to takeoff.
Captain Rayment made slight adjustments to ease the strain of holding the nose wheel off the ground while Captain Thain remained concentrated on the airspeed. The next speed call should have been at 119k, or V2 (the minimum safe speed required to take off). Following V2, Captain Rayment would be able to pull back further on the column to fly off the ground and the aircraft would be able to accelerate into the air. The plane was now well down the runway. They were travelling further than other planes had needed to: the churned slush from other aircraft before them was behind them now and fresh snow lay ahead of them. Suddenly there was a drop of speed by about 5 kph and for the first time Captain Thain reported a feeling of “lack” of acceleration. The power then dropped and the end of the runway approached with insufficient speed for flight. There was not enough runaway to abort. The Radio Officer, Rogers, transmitting a last message to the tower but it was never completed.
The aircraft left the paved surface and ploughed through the snow towards the boundary fence. The plane was 200 meters past the end of the runway and tore through the wooden fence and across a service road on the other side. A House and trees lay directly in their path. Rayment tried a final time to pull the plane off the ground and called for the undercarriage to be retracted in a desperate attempt get off the ground. The two pilots were now helpless as the aircraft began to turn slowly to the right and head between the house and a tree. In the tower, the controllers were blind to the drama, they heard only Rodgers’ last attempt at a message followed by a sudden pop and static.
The plane hit the house. The impact tore off the left engine, ripped off part of the aircraft's tail. The house was a blaze. The aircraft spun out of control, its momentum carrying it through the house and into a tree to the left. The plane impacted the tree on the left side of cockpit, tearing open the flight deck. One of the wheels broke off and spun away towards a vehicle parked on the road whilst the broken aircraft continued to slid on its undercarriage. A 100 meter further and the right wing struck a wooden out-building and ripped a gash into the fuselage. The impact severed the entire tail section from the main body of the aircraft. Inside the wooden building was a small truck and it's petrol tank exploded into flames. The aircraft ploughed into the field for further 70 meters before coming to a halt. The port engine had detached and continued for a dozen more yards. Within 5 seconds of the radio operators aborted call, through the violent impact, there was suddenly silence.
Reaction and Rescue
Captain Rayment who had taken the full force of the impact on the left side of the cockpit was badly injured. Captain Thain, seemingly unhurt, came to his senses immediatly and gave the order to evacuate. Radio officer Rodgers was also not badly injured and followed procedure to shut off the master electrical switch that could provide further fire hazards. The cockpit door leading to the passenger section was impassable as it was jammed with luggage and other obstacles. Rogers then squeezed through the emergency window of the flightdeck. Thain started to follow Rodgers but Rayment was unable to exit his seat. Rayment reported he was stuck and could not get out. Thain urged him to get out and Rayment ordered Thain to go ahead.
Thain then crawled through the emergency exit window and made assessments. There were a number of fires around the aircraft; flames could be seen at the end of the left wing. More worryingly below the right wing an intact 500 gallon fuel tank was a flame and posed a risk of a massive explosion. Standing on the field amongst various wreckage were the two stewardesses, Rosemary Cheverton and Margaret Bellis, but most of the passengers were still inside the aircraft.
Thain ordered everyone to evacuate the wreckage. Peter Howard, a Daily Mail photographer, crawled out of a hole on his hands and knees, closely followed by his photographer, Ted Elyard. United goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, struggle free and walked from the wreckage.
Thain and Rodgers, ignoring the danger of explosions, climbed back into the wreckage for the fire extinguishers, passing Rayment with words of assurance that, as soon as the fires were out, they would be back to help. Thain discharged one extinguishers at the fire by the broken wing. He looked through a portal to see Bill Foulkes still sitting in his seat, stunned by the impact. Thain shouted to him to get out and Bill struggled with his seat belt. Once undone, Bill jumped through a gaping hole near him and then sprinted 200 meters without stopping. When he turned and looked back he raced back to the wreckage to lent assistance.
Within a minute the small extinguishers were empty. A thick column of dense black smoke bellowed off the plane and fires were still raging. Still, Rodgers, the two stewardesses, Elyard, Gregg and Howard and joined by Foulkes, re-entered the wreck to help those trapped inside. Thain returned to Rayment, who was still trapped in the flight deck.
In the broken cabin, United manager Matt Busby was found seriously injured near the rear of the aircraft, clutching his ribs. Ahead of Matt, were his players, Bobby Charlton who was slumped in his seat, still fastened by his belt, and next to him Dennis Violett who also appeared unconscious. Both appeared beyond help. As they looked on Bobby Charlton simply awoke, sat upright and undid his seat belt then stood up and walked towards them; Dennis Violett followed. On the left, Jackie Blanchflower was alive but nursing a badly cut arm. The bleeding was stopped by applying someones neck-tie as a touraquay. All survivors had been at the front of the plane and hopes rose that the casualties would be as light at the rear.
Unknown to them at that time, 21 had already lost their lives; 7 players, the coach Bert Whalley, the trainer Tom Curry, secretary Walter Crickmer, Willie Satinoff a friend of Matt Busby. The 7 players: Club captain, Roger Byrne, David Pegg, Mark Jones, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor, and Liam Whelan were already dead. Eight of the nine football journalist on board, Alf Clarke of the Manchester Evening Chronicle; Don Davies, Manchester Guardian; George Follows, Daily Herald; Tom Jackson, Manchester Evening News; Archie Ledbrook, Daily Mirror; Henry Rose of the Daily Express; Eric Thompson, Daily Mail and Frank Swift of the News of the World who was one of England's and Manchester City’s greatest ever players - all killed as well as Tom Cable, the Steward and Miklos Bela the travel agent who had organised the trip.
The Emergency Services
Small fires continued to burn but there was no explosion and rescue work was able to continue. On the flight deck Captain Rayment was unable to be freed by Thain and it was obvious that cutting gear was needed. Soon first aid and ambulances appeared on the scene, followed by the fire engines. The flames around the wreck were quickly brought under control and injured assessed and the seriously injured rushed to hospital. Thain borrowed a fireman’s axe and returned to the Flight Deck to attempt to free Rayment but had no luck. Eventually Thain was persuaded by rescuers that he should go to hospital for a check up. Rayment strapped into his chair gave a thumbs-up and Thain left the scene. Rayment waited calmly to be rescued. It was almost an hour before rescue workers managed to release the badly injured Rayment by cutting him free from a tangle of metal. He was the last to be removed from the scene and he too was taken like all the crew and passengers, living and dead, to Rechts der Isar hospital.
After the last of those rescued had been taken to hospital, the search continued for survivors, but 2 hours after the accident, all hopes of finding anyone alive were fading. Then a journalist searching the scene for a missing can of film of the previous nights match match cleared some litter and underneath was young United player Ken Morgans, unconscious but breathing. The total number of survivors was now 23. The casualty figure 21 dead.
Of the 23 survivors, 15 were detained in hospital. Six of whom were dangerously ill, including Ken Rayment, Matt Busby, Johnny Berry, Duncan Edwards and two of the passengers Eleanor Miklos and Vera Lukic. Four of them, including Busby, were close to death and received last rights. Busby had suffered fractured ribs and a punctured lung, as well as injuries to his legs. A hospital statement said: "We do not have much hope of saving him."
Investigation and Press Statements
German Federal Crash Investigators arrived on the scene to start investigations. Initially it was suggested pilot error as the cause of the tragedy, saying Captain James Thain had taken off without de-icing the wings of the plane. He was later cleared when it was found that a build up of slush on the runway had prevented the plane from taking off.
The Chief Executive of BEA, A.H. Milward, made a press statement that there had been a heavy snowstorm in Munich and that the pilot had delayed departure because he was dissatisfied with one of the plane's engines. This was the first fatal accident for this type of BEA aeroplane, which had carried over 2,340,000 passengers on 86,000 flights since it began service in 1952 up to the tragedy in Munich.
News of the tragedy spread like wildfire around the globe. The entire city of Manchester came to a stand still. The catastrophic events echoed far beyond the World of football. Britain's first news of the tragedy came via teleprinter: "Manchester United aircraft crashed on take-off STOP heavy loss of life feared." The BBC interrupted its afternoon programmes to broadcast news flashes.
A few days after the crash, the bodies of the 21 British people were flown home and lay overnight in the gym at Old Trafford before being collected by the families. Thousands turned out to line the streets for the funerals and memorial services were held all over the country, and a two minutes' silence was impeccably observed at matches throughout the country.
Matt Busby was still close to death; received the last rites for a second time. Duncan Edwards was believed to be recovering but was fighting for life.
Life Must Go On
13 days after the crash United would played football again in the fifth-round FA Cup tie at home to Sheffield Wednesday. Busby told his assistant Jimmy Murphy, who missed the trip because he was managing Wales at the time, to "keep the flag flying". Murphy, with special help from the FA, signed two midfield reinforcements: Ernie Taylor arrived from Blackpool, and with just 75 minutes before kick-off, Stan Crowther signed from Aston Villa, to become the only player to legitimately play for two different teams in the same season’s F.A. Cup campaign.
The front cover of that match day program read "United will go on". Inside the teamsheet consisted of 11 blank spaces. Sheffield Wednesday were swept away by a team and fans possessed but filled with emotion. Albert Quixall, later commented "United ran their hearts out. They were playing like men inspired."
Two days later, Duncan Edwards died. He had suffered kidney failure and his body rejected the transplant. His 15 day fight had astounded the medical team caring for him.
Busby had stabilised, and ay United's next home game, on March 9, he tape-recorded a message to the fans which echoing amongst the packed yet silent Old Trafford crowd. Busby fought on drifting in and out of consciousness. Nobody dared tell him what had happened. "How are the boys?" he asked his son, Sandy. "They are all right," was the lie with the best of intentions. It was Matt Busby's wife, Jean, who revealed the worst, Busby later recalled "I came to one day and Jean was there, leaning over me. I said, 'What happened?' She said nothing, so I began to go through the names. She didn't speak. She didn't even look at me. When they were done, she just shook her head."
Busby's physical injuries were healing, but mental ones were to scar: "To be honest, I suppose I wasn't sane. I wanted to die. I felt that, in a way, I might have been responsible. That I shouldn't have allowed us to go the third time. What was so special about me that I'd survived? I was absolutely determined that I'd have nothing more to do with football." - Matt Busby (circa 1967)
The following week, Kenneth Rayment succumbed to his injuries, taking the final death toll to 23.
Manchester was a city in mourning. The February chill clung and the winter overcoats and hats were all black to add to the feeeling of a city that felt like a cemetary. Shops windows were blacked out and shop keepers removed displays of their wares and replaced them with photographs of the babes. The club decided it was no place Matt in such a depressed state of mind, and sent Matt and Jean Busby to Interlaken, in Switzerland, for an extended period of convalescence. In their last days out there Jean Busby persuaded Matt to return to United, saying “You know, Matt, the lads would have wanted you to carry on." The melancholic spell was broken but, Busby said: "It was dreadful, facing up to going back."
Matt Busby returned by rail and sea to arrive back at United on April 18th - 71 days after the crash. In his absence, the players had run on emotion and adrenalin for a few weeks and a chance to still win the league seemed a fairy tale after a nightmare. Inevitably United slumped and won just one of the 14 League games to finish ninth. United had reached the FA Cup final though, where they played Bolton on May 3rd. Murphy led the team out, but all eyes were on Busby as he made his way slowly on crutches to the bench.Less than three weeks before the disaster they had thrashed Bolton 7-2. Now they lost in a tame performance 2-0.
Appropriately, their shirts that May day were emblazoned with a phoenix rising from the flames. They had lost 10 of their best players, including Blanchflower and Berry and the great team was no more.
Of the surviving players, Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower never played again. The 18 year old Ken Morgans never recovered his form and dropped down through the leagues, Albert Scanlon, who had suffered a fractured skull, returned the very next season scoring 16 goals before leaving for lower league clubs. Ray Wood only appeared once more for United but had a long career in the lower leagues. Harry Gregg was cited for his bravery for returning into the blazing wreckage 4 times, would replaced Wood as goalkeeper for United for 7 more seasons. Dennis Viollet went on to set a United goalscoring record of 32 league goals in the 1959/60 season and ended up playing for Stoke City. Bill Foulkes went on to play a major part in United’s European Cup success in the 1960's. Bobby Charlton, 20 at the time of the crash, became one of the greatest players the game has known and currently holds the record for most appearances for United (or until Ryan Giggs exceeds it) and is regarded as the games most respected of ambassadors.
Written by Condor © UNITEDLOUNGE.COM Reproducing this material, either in whole or in part, without the permission of unitedlounge.com is strictly prohibitedAt just 3:04 pm on a bleak winter’s day on February 6th 1958 in Munich, in an area not much bigger than a football field, the hopes, aspirations and dreams of a great football team, possibly the greatest ever, lay shattered in ruins, decimated by the death of 8 young footballers who destiny decided to rob of the greatness they were heading for and thus made them footballing immortals because of what they might have done rather than because of what they did. The tragedy that was The Munich Air Disaster deprived the world of much great footballing talent; it took away the pride of English football, The Flowers of Manchester.