Harry Gregg was voted best goalkeeper of the tournament at the 1958 World Cup held that June. The Northern Irish football player had been part of a youthful Manchester United team under the charge of Matt Busby. Disaster struck the talented squad on 6th February 1958, during the return leg of a journey to play the Red Star Belgrade team.
The “Busby Babes” were flying from a refuelling stop at Munich back to Britain and were accompanied by journalists and staff. 44 people were on board when the plane failed to gather enough speed to take off. The aircraft hit a tree and a house which was situated next to a fuel depot. Only 21 people survived the crash and ensuing fire.
In a documentary for National Geographic, Harry Gregg returned to the site of the disaster to talk to rescuers and doctors who attended the scene, before meeting the family that he pulled from the wreckage and visiting the original Red Star Belgrade team at their stadium.
It is evident that Gregg is much happier around football and he lights up when presented with a Red Star Belgrade shirt with his name on. At one point, the player exclaims “a sports psychologist could have done nothing for me. Football saved my sanity – by the way, football saved whatever sanity I ever had, more than once”.
His children offer a clearer picture, saying that the hero of the disaster often questions whether he did enough and whether, put in the same situation again, he would have run away. His wife also died when the couple were just 26 and 27 with young children. Gregg’s late daughter, Karen, claims that this loss was just as difficult for the player as losing his team mates. She also doubted whether he would go on a long plane journey again after the last meeting with survivors of the disaster.
Gregg shuns any praise for his heroism. Despite pulling a pregnant mother, child and team mates from the burning fuselage he says “I’m Henry Gregg, 34 Windsor Avenue, who played football, who was useful at it on good days and rubbish on bad days – that’s what I want to be remembered for, not for something that happened on the spur of the moment”.
“Munich Air Disaster: I Was There” airs at 9pm on Monday 29th August 2011 on National Geographic for UK viewers only.