What the papers said – Süddeutsche Zeitung, 7 February 1958Snow over bodies and wreckageAt the crash site of the British plane / 50 doctors treat the seriously injured
By our staff writer Hanns Krammer
Munich, 6 February
At first, all you can hear is the crackling of flames and the cracking of the hut the plane has ploughed into. And a child screaming. The alarm siren is wailing from the airport control tower. The clock in air traffic control has stopped at exactly three minutes past four. That was the time when the twin-engined British European Airways Air Speed Ambassador broke into two pieces. The plane’s triple rudder smashed a gardener’s hut three hundred metres west of the runway into pieces, while the front section skidded over a hundred metres further across the wet snow.

Eighteen snow-white mounds
Barely an hour after the disaster, there are now 18 dead bodies lying between the two sections of wreckage. Their mangled bodies are covered with coarse blankets, and snow is falling on them. They form 18 small mounds which barely stand out above the trampled white ground. Policemen are trying to cordon off the small square, but ambulance men and firemen are still jumping around between the corpses. From an open lorry, someone yells: “Where’s the child, where’s the child?” No one answers at first. Then a civilian shouts: “ In Perlach Hospital. The mother’s been saved as well.”

The crashed plane first scraped with its left wing against the stone house of market gardener Ernst Berger. The wing broke off and the engine broke free like a loose stone from a ring. Immediately, flames shot from the roof of the building. The housekeeper dashed out of the door in great distress. But at once the airport rescue workers, who had run across the runway, rushed inside and saved all the possessions that could be moved. Immediately the airport fire brigade sprayed it with every available hose. The house was saved. Yellow smoke still pours from the roof and the windows.

But barely 200 metres further on, all that remains of the shed is a pile of rubble. Two giant spotlights belonging to the US Air Force fire brigade from Neubiberg illuminate the terrible scene. American soldiers and Munich firemen in knee-length rubber boots rummage through the debris. In the middle of the hut, now levelled to the ground, lies the rudder. In red and gold letters on the silver metal, you can still read the words ‘Royal Air Mail’. Damp snow falls constantly.

A tangle of wires, material and metal
A man says: “They pulled at least 10 bodies out of the fuselage.” Now there are apparently no more inside, as a man in uniform with a leather neck protector is poking around in the smouldering rubble with a four-pronged pitchfork. In the background, two men are holding firehoses in their bare hands, in order to douse any fire that might suddenly break out. A generator hums in the background.

A handful of men wearing gloves are digging around in the tangle of wires, Bakelite tins, scraps of material and shards of metal. They pull out a few shapeless bags. But these aren’t people. Policemen stand in a circle around the remnants of the hut, at intervals of barely two metres, turning away the curious people who have come in small groups from the nearby village of Kirchtrudering. A woman with four children lived in the hut. They all escaped. No one knows how, but they are alive and uninjured.
The fuselage of the plane is lying there as if it had never been part of the aircraft, which flew as scheduled from Belgrade to Munich on Thursday afternoon and taxied to a standstill on the concrete apron at 2.30pm for a one-and-a-half-hour stopover. The three propellers of the left engine have bent inwards as if they were made of straw. One side of the fuselage gapes open. Several passengers were hurled out here, including some of those who escaped with their lives.

Dr Erich Holthausen from Munich, who happened to be at Riem Airport to attend to the patients of another BEA plane, was one of the first on the scene of the accident. Pointing to the wreck, he said: “I saw the first people stumbling out of this hole, streaming with blood. Then came others who could still move. They helped to get out both the injured and the dead.” Some of the dead had been hurled several metres away from the plane. Their faces and bodies are horribly maimed. To begin with the ambulance men laid white paper over the corpses, which were then mercifully covered by snow.

 Meanwhile, dozens of cars have arrived on the flat land between Riem and Kirchtrudering. A traffic policeman with a rotating torch directs them to park in long rows along the wide road. Other cars are trying to get past in order to get closer to the scene of the accident. It is still snowing continuously. But firemen are standing there and waving them away with lamps: no way through. There are hoses here.

Wild rumours are buzzing around about the cause of the accident. The only thing that is certain is that the plane had already made two attempts to take off before it got off the runway at all. No one can say for sure how many metres’ altitude it reached. “It didn’t get very high at all,” says one person. Another eyewitness claims to have seen that “it made a few jumps in the air”. At 6.16pm, neither the number of deaths nor the number of injuries is known. But 15 minutes after the accident, the first pair of ambulances raced off in the direction of the Rechts der Isar hospital.

A lorry driver who was driving his truck full of sand parallel with the flight path says: “The aeroplane didn’t get off the ground at all. Suddenly a wheel rolled loose from the undercarriage of the plane. It came racing towards me. I pressed down hard on the accelerator so that it didn’t hit me on the cab, but it thumped into the back of the truck. Then the aeroplane exploded. I just about saw one wing getting itself caught up in the trees. Then all I saw was smoke and flames.”

A hundred hands continue searching
No one knows yet how many deaths and casualties the disaster has caused. The first figure given was 15, then 18, then 20. There is still no trace of four passengers. Are they buried under the snow-covered wreckage? Have they been taken to hospital? Or are they still lying somewhere in the smouldering remains of the gardener’s hut? Hundreds of hands continue searching, almost soundlessly, for the snow smothers nearly all noises.

It’s probably only the organisers of this rescue operation who know the method behind this apparently chaotic muddle of people, cars, hoses, cables, rubble and corpses. Firmly held back by policemen, 200 curious onlookers stare at the white field. Inside the cordon there’s barely a loud word to be heard. Only here and there, brief directions and the whispering of small groups who’ve put their heads close together. The civilian whose head has almost completely disappeared behind the upturned collar of his coat, and who previously shouted that the child had been saved, is still there. Beaming, he tells anyone who’ll listen: “She’s only got minor injuries, I phoned the hospital and the mother’s also doing well. The child’s been saved.” It was the only child on the plane.

In the meantime, it’s business as usual in the brightly-lit airport, as if nothing had happened. Bored passengers sit on the red leather benches in the lounge and wait for their flight to be called. But in air traffic control the phone rings continuously. At 7.55pm the BEA office at the airport releases the first official statement:

“British European Airways is deeply saddened to have to announce the loss of an Air Speed Ambassador Elizabethan. The plane crashed at 3.03pm local time, shortly after takeoff. The number of deaths is not yet known. 19 injured people were taken to a hospital for immediate treatment. The names of the dead will be released to their next of kin as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, 40 surgeons and 10 anaesthetists are working in the Rechts der Isar hospital to save the injured passengers. The emergency room, which is equipped to the highest modern standards, resembles a beehive. But everything is done almost noiselessly. A continuous supply of new bottles arrives at the hospital from the blood bank. Forty transfusions are carried out in the space of less than two hours. 
Three of the casualties are in a highly critical condition, reports Chief Doctor Professor Maurer. The famous former international goalkeeper Frank Victor Swift dies on the operating table. He was one of England’s most famous footballers.

Shortly after 8pm, seven survivors who only suffered minor injuries are huddled in the glazed reception area of the emergency room. Among them is the plane’s captain, James Thain. Tired,
he sits on a couch and stares straight ahead. His dark blue pilot’s uniform is not even stained. His thick hair and reddish moustache are still carefully groomed. His eyes look straight ahead. Even when a call from Bonn summons him to the white telephone, no life enters them. The other people with minor injuries, who include two women, sit mutely on chairs. Some hold their heads in their hands.

The first to find his voice again is the sports reporter Peter Howard, of the Daily Mail in London. 
He sits there barefoot, his shirt still bloody. He says: “On the very first takeoff attempt, I noticed that the two engines were running irregularly. We taxied back to the apron. But the engines didn’t seem to get up to speed on the second takeoff attempt either. The third time the aeroplane did race across the concrete runway, and then all at once across grass. Suddenly the cockpit seemed to bore its way into the ground. There was a dreadful racket. The thing fell apart. It was burning. A pile of luggage fell on me. Then everything fell deathly quiet. Then I crawled out.”

The reception area is almost painfully brightly lit. The survivors there move as if in slow motion. Only the English Consul, Donald Ballantine, who came at once, seems to act and speak normally. He leads the first seven people who are ready to be discharged through a back door. They go to the Königshof Hotel. They include two women and the captain. An hour later, an eighth survivor is released.

It is now 10pm. The doctors and nurses will spend the entire night fighting for the lives of 15 more people.
“He came to the ground and we had a discussion, because he thought I was having a go at him. I wasn’t – and I never wanted to hurt him or his family. But Bill had said things, such as that the first time he saw me after the crash I was coming round the tail of the aircraft covered in blood and carrying a child in my arms. The truth is, Bill did come back to help, but when I was bringing the child out he was running away from the plane. We owe it to the memory of those left behind on that runway to tell it how it was.”

If Foulkes was bruised by the account of
the volatile Irishman, from whom he was inseparable in the first days of the aftermath, his own definitive report on the crash (in his book Manchester United and Beyond, published in 2003) is unquestionably marked by a purging honesty. He doesn’t paint himself as a hero, but as a victim who did what he could when he could – when, most pertinently, he had been able to unscramble his senses.

It’s a most thorough report. Foulkes paints
a mood growing more sombre by the second as the engines were wound up for the third takeoff. He tells how big Frank Swift demanded information from the crew, standing up and shouting: “What the hell is going on?” How David Pegg quit the card school, moving from his seat next to Foulkes towards the back of the plane and the company of Mark Jones (a poor flyer who was beginning to look grey), Tommy Taylor and Eddie Colman – a decision that almost certainly cost him his life. Byrne joked, thinly, that it was all or nothing now, and Frank Taylor, the man from the News Chronicle, was told to sit down in a forward position, where he had gone, Foulkes presumed, to glean a quote or two for his follow-up story – another fateful decision, this one separating him from
his doomed press colleagues.

Then Foulkes carries us down the runway.
“As we accelerated, I peered out of the window at the snow racing past. My last memory is of pushing the pack of cards hurriedly into my side pocket. The engines were surging but there was a peculiar note, as they could not 

Then, just at the moment when we should have been getting off the ground, there was the first of a series of three sickening bumps. The first must have been the aircraft hitting a perimeter fence, the second when the pilot pulled up his wheels and the third, the loudest, when we hit a house. I just had time to think to myself: ‘This is it,’ before I had the sensation of being thrown all over the place. Then there was darkness.”

Foulkes was brought back to his senses by knocking on the window. Albert Scanlon, his roommate in Belgrade (who bizarrely, had woken him at 3am on the eve of the game to offer him an apple), had disappeared. But Foulkes still felt whole. He was strapped to his seat, secure, but when he turned to his right he saw that the part of the plane were Roger Byrne had been sitting had disappeared. There he could see only the snow-filled sky.

Foulkes describes scrambling through a jagged hole, his run to safety quickened by the image that came roaring into his head; a plane exploding soon after it had crashed. He stood among a confused group of onlookers, mostly German women. The picture is hellish. Bodies lay in a weirdly symmetrical line stretching from the plane, resting in pools of water left by the melting snow. The aircraft, Foulkes
saw, had been cut in half. Burning bushes
and drums were scattered around, and the tilted tail, with the Union flag symbol burning away, dominated everything. “As I walked back towards a scene of utter desolation, I could see Matt Busby trying to sit up. I spotted Roger Byrne and though there wasn’t a mark on him, I was sure from the unnatural way he was sitting that he must be dead.”

Gregg applied a tourniquet to Blanchflower’s shattered arm and Foulkes suddenly, irrationally, had a sense that things weren’t so bad. Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet were traumatised and stunned, but they were alive, and there was the great man Busby stirring. Soon Foulkes was in a Volkswagen van bearing himself, Gregg, Charlton, Viollet and Busby (who had been placed on a stretcher) to the hospital, and he recalls striking the driver on the back of his head because he was driving perilously fast. But the van roared on through the snow.

Doctors tend to the injured Bobby Charlton in Munich’s Rechts der Isar hospital. Charlton had been dragged from the wreckage of the plane by Harry Gregg.

The Manager
Right up to his death in 1994, Busby remembered in fine detail the desolation which came to him when he regained consciousness at the Rechts der Isar hospital. He said: “I had drifted in and out of sleep for days. Something, when I was awake, told me there had been a terrible catastrophe, not just an accident, but the nuns and the doctors said nothing. Then I came to one day and Jean, my wife, was there, leaning over me. She said nothing either. Jean had always been my strength.

“I said: ‘What happened?’ She still said nothing. So I began to go through the names. She didn’t speak at all. She didn’t even look at me. When they were gone she just shook her head. ‘Dead… dead… dead… dead… dead… dead… dead… dead.’

“To be honest, I suppose I wasn’t sane. I was raving and creating hell with everyone. Why us? Was it some human error, or had it been decreed from above? If so, why hadn’t I died with them? What was so special about me that I had survived? I’m a Catholic. I had always believed in an afterlife. But what was an afterlife to those lads? What power was it that could allow them to be destroyed? It had shaken my faith. I was very mixed up in the head. I was absolutely determined that I would have nothing more to do with football. I didn’t want to see anyone who had the remotest connection with the game. I was hell to live with.”

Busby would heal, at least to some degree, over the weeks and months and years, and with fine timing, Jean would choose the moment to usher him back towards the action. It was at dinner on one of the last nights of his convalescence in Interlaken in Switzerland when she said: “Matt, you know the lads would have wanted you to carry on.” He recalled the moment many years later, saying: “It sounds like some line out of a film script, doesn’t it? Women are so much stronger than we are. It was so dreadful facing up to it.”

The air of devastation would never quite leave Busby, but then nor could he ever detach himself from the obligation to make Manchester United whole again – not even when Real Madrid made him an astonishing offer to move to Spain, and promised: “We’ll make it heaven and earth for you.” Perhaps they might have done, but what was beyond them was bringing closure on what had occurred in Munich. That could only happen with redemption on the field; however difficult the task might prove to be, Busby had to remake the world that had been so profoundly shattered.
Now, nearly 50 years later, that suffocating sense of frozen will, of United being sucked into a course of events they were powerless to control, remains overwhelming; even now you look for those moments when everything might have changed, swung back into a proper balance, when pinpricks of unease reached the point where they had to be acted upon. Heaven knows there was no shortage of such windows of time in that fateful afternoon. But year after year, month after month, day after day, the light refuses to shine in.

No one pulls back from the awful circumstances that persuaded one of the victims, the devout Catholic Liam Whelan, to declare in the darkened cabin in the last moments of his life: “If this is death, I’m ready for it.” It means that the streaks of blood in the snow can never be finally washed away; no more than the unvarnished reality that
a beautiful young football team, masters of their shining universe, had become, in the last moments of their existence, trapped in the ultimate uncertainty: they really didn’t know if they were going to live or die.

It is then, with that awful truth, that we confront the last and most terrible reality. It was that whatever the state of individual souls, no one, and least of all the swaggeringly brilliant young footballers fresh from another triumph, were ready for those kinds of deaths, ones not of unchartable fate but something born of impatience – yes, something as banal as the need to get home on time, and because of it a willingness to take risks that would be considered unthinkable today.

When we play it back, it is still like witnessing a relentlessly choreographed dance into the jaws of darkness, a sadness that for many remains as vivid as an unhealed wound.

Matt Busby (top) lies seriously ill in an oxygen tent, while Dennis Viollet (above) gets a visit from wife Barbara.

“Why us? Was it some human error,  or had it been decreed from above? If so, why hadn’t I died with them?”
Matt Busby