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Imnotahero

Don't make me out to be John Wayne - I did what I did on the spur of the moment

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EXCLUSIVE By Robbie Collin

THE pungent stench of aircraft fuel choking his lungs. The salty trickle of blood lingering on his lips. The shaft of light piercing the darkness and the child's wail tearing through the deathly silence.

Fifty-year-old memories that live strong in the mind of Harry Gregg.

For the 75-year-old Manchester United legend, pictured above back in the Budapest Stadium where that terrible journey began, still feels the panic and the all-consuming terror he felt back in 1958, when he was trapped in the twisted wreckage of BEA Flight 609, in the chill February

Planecrash

twilight in Munich (above). The world was horrified as the lives of 23 players, journalists and supporters were snuffed out in one of our most terrible sporting tragedies.

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Silent shock in Manchester

Harry, then a 25-year-old goalkeeper with the world at his feet, can still recall the faces of his fellow passengers, as they sat anxiously on the runway at Munich-Riem airport, seconds earlier.

Roger Byrne. Liam Whelan. Geoff Bent. Eddie Colman. Mark Jones. David Pegg. Tommy Taylor. Duncan Edwards.

Famous names all and members of the team that became known as the Busby Babes. None of whom would survive the terrible air crash that was about to happen.

Munich200zCaptain James Thain, the pilot, had already tried to take off twice, but aborted both times because of problems with variable thrust and power in the aircraft's twin engines.

In the build-up to the third attempt, as the clock inched towards 3.04pm, the passengers' nerves were frayed.

Harry, from Tobermore, Northern Ireland, went on to have a stellar career in football and is rated as one of the best goalkeepers Manchester United ever had.

But the memories of that day have overshadowed all his other achievements-and, eyes misting over, he summoned up those memories once more.

"Roger Byrne, our captain, was in the seat next to the window and he looked bloody terrified," he said. "His face was contorted with fear.

"He was actually more scared than I was and somehow I drew courage from his fear.

Thriller

"The silence was punctuated by a nervous snigger and wee Johnny Berry said, ‘I don't know what you're laughing at, we're all going to die here.'

"Liam's response was immediate and he piped up, ‘Well, if this is the time, then I'm ready.'"

Munich200yA throwaway statement of youthful courage-which, just seconds later, would be proved all-too prophetic.

As the aircraft moved to the end of the runway once again, Harry put down the book he was reading-a racy thriller called The Whip-and gazed nervously out of the window.

"By today's standards it was pretty tame stuff, but back in 1958 it was considered a bit risqué and I reckoned if I died reading it, I'd go straight to hell," he recalled.

"I loosened my tie and my trousers, got low into my seat and sat with my legs propped against the seat in front of me. Directly across from me was a woman with a little girl."

They were two members of the Lukic family-23-year-old Vera and her bouncy 22-month-old daughter Vesna.

Slush

They were travelling to London to meet Veljko, Vera's husband, and were carrying an especially precious cargo-although Harry did not know this yet.

Some of the players had bought chocolates for Vesna, chased her around the airport lounge and made her laugh before the flight. But now the mood was sombre, more tense.

Munich200x "I'd been watching the aircraft wheels and the telescopic rods extending to them, they were churning through the slush," he said.

"The wheels began to lift off the ground. And then..."

In the cataclysmic seconds that followed, eight Manchester United footballers were among the 23 passengers and crew killed in what was to become one of the blackest moments in British sporting history.

At the last second, the landing gear of the Elizabethan class Airspeed Ambassador charter aircraft G-ALZU Lord Burghley caught in the build-up of slush on the end of the runway.

Slowing with a lurch, the plane struggled to gain the vital last few feet needed to clear the airport fence.

It didn't make it-and ploughed into the fence before smashing into an unoccupied house on the airport boundary.

Screech

Brick tore through metal with a sickening screech, the cabin crumpling and fragmenting like a crushed drink can. Sparks flew like a hailstorm.

"As the thing broke up, I seemed to be going round and round," said Harry. "I was sure I was going to die.

"Suddenly thoughts were going through my mind. I was thinking I'd done well for the first time in my life, and now I was never going to see my mother or my wife and my little girl again-and I can't speak German."

It was only when the blood began to slowly trickle down Harry's face that he realised he was still alive.

"I thought I was dead until I felt the blood running down my face," he said. "But I didn't want to feel my head because I thought the top had been taken off like a hard-boiled egg.

"I didn't want to put my hand up, in case there was no top.

"I was just so confused. It was total darkness, yet it was only three in the afternoon. It was hard to reconcile."

Then, to his right and slightly above him, there shone a shaft of light.

"I realised I wasn't dead and reached down to undo my safety belt, but it wasn't there," he said.

Harry crawled towards the light-streaming through a hole in the plane's shattered fuselage-and kicked the gap bigger with the soles of his feet.

Daze

He looked out in a daze. Lying below him was the first dead person he saw.

"It was Bert Whalley, the chief coach, and there wasn't a mark on him," remembered Harry. "He'd been taken with us as a bonus for developing all those great young players that became known as the Busby Babes.

"I managed to turn myself around to kick the hole bigger to get out, and it was then I noticed I was missing a shoe.

"I dropped down to the ground and just stood. At first I thought I was the only one left alive."

In the distance Harry noticed five people running away. They yelled at him to run too.

At the same time, the aircraft captain staggered round from what had been the plane's nose, clutching a tiny fire extinguisher. His brow furrowed and he shouted at Harry in broken English: "Run, you stupid bastard-it's going to explode."

It seemed unreal, but then a single noise jolted Harry back into the moment-a child's cry.

He suddenly remembered the young mother and daughter who had been sitting across the aisle from his seat-and knew he couldn't run.

"I shouted at the people running away to come back, but they were still shouting at me to run," he said.

Cursed

"I could hear the child crying and felt angry they were running away, so I shouted again, ‘Come back you bastards, there's people alive in here.'

"For me to shout that was difficult because, at that time, I was a God-fearing man and wouldn't normally have cursed. But the people just kept running."

Against all his survival instincts, the man who was later named the world's top goalkeeper at the 1958 World Cup summoned up the superhuman bravery required to make the greatest saves of his life.

Alone, Harry climbed back into the smouldering wreckage. In the darkness, he laid his hand on a baby's romper suit. His mind instantly flashed to his own daughter back home in England.

"I was terrified what I'd find beneath it," he said quietly. "I was relieved when I found it empty.

"I went further in the wreckage and found the baby beneath a pile of debris and remarkably, she only had a cut over her eye.

"I scrabbled back to the hole with her and got her out."

Harry headed in the direction of the people who had been running away and met the radio operator George Rodgers, who was returning to help.

He handed him the young girl and went back into the wreckage to look for her mother.

Kicked

He found her with a gaping wound to her head. Harry later learned she also had a fractured skull, two broken legs, severe back injuries and a smashed elbow and arm.

"I was on my backside and was behind the woman, so I used my legs to push her along towards the hole," Harry remembered.

"I couldn't carry her or lift her so I got my feet in the middle of her back and literally kicked her through the hole."

Little did he know, Harry had saved three lives so far, not two.

Not only had he rescued 22-month-old Vesna Lukic and her 23-year-old mother Vera (pictured above in hospital), but also the unborn child that Vera was carrying-who was born five and a half months later.

But as he returned into the wreckage of the cabin once more, his eyes met a heartbreaking sight-the bodies of his team-mates.

"The captain, Roger Byrne, didn't have a mark on him," Harry said in a small voice. "His eyes were open but he was clearly dead. I've always regretted that I didn't close his eyes.

"I found Ray Wood and he was wearing a big orange sweater. I tried to move him but couldn't.

Sick

"Nearby was Albert Scanlon and Scanny's injuries were so severe I had to fight to prevent myself from being sick. I couldn't budge him and I left them both thinking they were dead.

"I began to search for Jackie Blanchflower and I shouted out his name. Blanchy and I had been friends since we played together for Ireland Schoolboys as 14-year-olds and I was desperate to find him.

"I stumbled across Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, hanging half-in, half-out of what was left of the body of the plane. Dennis had a gash behind his right ear.

"Again, I thought Dennis and Bobby were dead, but even so I grabbed them by the waistbands of their trousers and trailed them through the snow for about 20 yards, away from the smouldering front of the plane.

"When I found Blanchy the lower part of his right arm had been almost completely severed. It was horrendous, a scene of utter devastation."

Many of those who Harry thought had been killed actually lived. Charlton played again for Manchester United and was part of the 1966 England World Cup-winning team.

Casualties

Viollet, Scanlon and Wood went back to professional football but their careers never hit the heights of the Busby Babes.

Others, such as Jackie Blanchflower, survived but were unable to recover enough to return to the game.

The casualties that day weighed heavy on Harry's mind.

He was called the ‘Hero of Munich' and awarded the OBE-but accepted it only reluctantly, as a tribute to those who had lost their lives.

"How in God's name could I go out and talk of the things that happened?" he said.

"People wanted to know about things that happened but I never spoke about it. I was invited one time to the Yugoslav Embassy for a ceremony or presentation but I didn't reply.

"Don't make me out to be some bloody John Wayne character. I did what I did on the spur of the moment. God forbid what I would do if it were to happen again.

"I might now be the man who runs away. People can talk all they like about what shock is, and they can say what they're going to do from one moment to the next in the event of something like that happening.

"But the truth is, no-one really knows."

For 40 years, Harry suffered with what he calls "classic survivor's guilt"-and couldn't meet the widows and families of the friends he lost that day.

"I couldn't look those people in the eye, knowing I'd lived when their loved ones had perished," he said.

"It wasn't until 1998 that I finally confronted my demons, starting at the Munich Memorial Service at Manchester Cathedral.

Guilt

"The next evening, after a United-Bolton match, I finally spoke to Joy Byrne, Roger's widow.

"She said to me, ‘Harry Gregg, why have you been torturing yourself for 40 years?' That night washed away years of guilt."

There was one other person who was especially keen to meet Harry.

Zoran Lukic, the unborn child whom he had rescued, now a 49-year-old man living in Belgrade, Serbia, had only ever read about or heard his elderly mother talk about the events of that day.

Forbidden for years from making contact with Harry because of stringent laws against associating with Westerners, Zoran's father Veljko, a former diplomat, initially suggested the meeting.

He had spent nearly a lifetime wanting to shake the hand of the man who saved his family.

Veljko died last summer, just weeks before Harry arrived in Belgrade to meet him. When he reached the 18th-floor apartment and met the Lukic family nearly 50 years on from that afternoon in Munich, he told Vera: "I am so, so sorry not to have met your husband."

For hours they sat together talking about their lives over the last 49 years, the conversation filled with laughter and tears.

But Zoran was quiet. As he stared into the face of the man whom he had known only from stories and newspaper cuttings, he told Harry: "I have always wanted this moment, to look into your face and say to you ‘Thank you'.

"I was the third passenger you saved, but at the time, you were not to know that."

Harry smiled. "Young man, you have nothing to thank me for," he replied. "I did what had to be done without thinking about it.

"I've lived with being called a hero but I'm not really a hero. Heroes are people who do brave things knowing the consequences of their actions.

"That day I had no idea what I was doing. And if it were to happen again, I do not have any idea how I'd react. It's possible I'd be the one who runs away."

Long after Harry left the apartment and returned to his home on Ulster's rugged northern Atlantic coast, Zoran Lukic sat staring at his elderly mother's scrapbook of yellowing press clippings of the crash, thinking about the story of how his family had been saved.

As he closed it that night, he said to his mother: "Now I know the man who gave us our lives. He is everything I thought he would be."

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