6th February, 1958 was the darkest day in United’s history when 23 people – including eight players and three members of the club’s staff were killed in a plane crash
Flying back from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade, the team plane stopped in Germany to refuel. The first two attempts to take off from Munich airport were aborted; following a third attempt, the plane crashed.
Twenty-one of the people on board died instantly. Aeroplane captain Kenneth Rayment died a few weeks later from the injuries he sustained while Duncan Edwards – one of the eight victims from the team – passed away 15 days after the crash. The tragedy is an indelible part of United’s history, as is Sir Matt Busby overcoming his injuries to build another great team which won the European Cup 10 years later.
Roger Byrne (28), Eddie Colman (21), Mark Jones (24), David Pegg (22), Tommy Taylor (26), Geoff Bent (25), Liam Whelan (22) and Duncan Edwards (21) all died, along with club secretary Walter Crickmer, trainer Tom Curry and coach Bert Whalley.
Eight journalists died – Alf Clarke, Tom Jackson, Don Davies, George Fellows, Archie Ledbrook, Eric Thompson, Henry Rose, and Frank Swift who was a former Manchester City player. Plane captain Ken Rayment perished, as did Sir Matt’s friend Willie Satinoff. Travel agent Bela Miklos and crew member Tom Cable also died.
The news caused consternation in Manchester, where all sales of tickets for future matches were suspended and crowds gathered at United’s ground at Old Trafford to get the latest information. Messages of condolence arrived from all over the world, including one from President Tito. At a concert in Sheffield, the HallÃ© Orchestra of Manchester played Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ as a memorial tribute. The audience of a thousand people stood throughout and there was then a minute’s silence.
The cause of the air crash
There was snow and ice on the runways and the plane taxied out to take off, but returned. The same thing happened a second time. Apparently the pilot was not getting enough power from the engines, but he was determined to go ahead with the flight and at the third attempt the aircraft rose a few feet off the ground and ran into a wooden fence. The port wing hit a building and the plane caught fire. Peter Howard, a photographer on board for the Daily Mail, said that the aircraft suddenly seemed to break up. Seats started to crumble up and everything seemed to be falling to bits. ‘It was a rolling sensation and all sorts of stuff started coming down on top of us. There was not time to think. No one cried out. No one spoke; just a deadly silence for what could only have been seconds.
United survived the crash and became champions of Europe a decade later
United were determined to survive the disaster and ten years later they became the first English team to win the European Cup. Matt Busby, who had been given the freedom of Manchester the year before, was knighted in 1968. Sir Bobby Charlton published a moving account of the tragedy in 2007 in his autobiography, in which he said that he had never got over feeling guilty because by sheer luck he had survived when friends and team-mates had perished.
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