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7 February 2013

The astonishing
heroism of
Harry Gregg

Alan Fisher

Setting up an interview with Harry Gregg was very simple. A quick call to the hotel he owned in Portstewart on Northern Ireland's Antrim coast, and an agreement we'd meet at the ferry terminal in Belfast the following morning.

I remember it being chilly and grey and Harry tall, strong and athletic and ready to speak about an event which happened a long time ago (6 February 1958) but is worth re-telling. When we met 15 years ago, he was 65. His handshake was firm, his big goalkeeper's hand almost twice the size of mine. Harry was part of a Manchester United team, marshalled by their Scottish manager, Matt Busby, whose potential was remarkable.

But all that changed as the team returned from a European Cup tie in Belgrade in 1958. The plane stopped to refuel in Munich. It tried twice to take off but the pilot pulled out at the last moment. With heavy snow falling, most passengers thought a night in Munich lay ahead, but the pilot decided to give it another go and everyone got back on the plane.

Harry Gregg was worried. It was the silence. A plane full of young, confident men, never short or a quip or a joke, but on this occasion so quiet. Harry remembers turning to talk to Roger Byrne and seeing the fear in his face. Harry looked out of the window. 'I remember seeing a tree and a house passing by and suddenly everything went black and sparks began to fly'. As things started to bounce around the cabin, Harry was hit on the head. 'I thought the top of my head had been cut off'.

The plane turned on its side, scraping and grinding along the runway. And then it stopped. Harry remembers: 'There was no crying. There was silence and blackness, and for a second I thought I was dead. And this strange idea passed through my mind that I'd had a great life and I couldn't speak German'.

As Harry remembers the events on the tarmac, he stares just beyond me as if he's watching a replay and describing it moment by moment. There was a flash of daylight and a hissing noise and Harry realised that he was still alive. He knew he had to get out.

He crawled over some bodies and found a hole in the fuselage. He scrambled out and saw others running through the snow heading for safety. What happened next is the mark of the man Harry Gregg is, what makes him truly heroic. He heard a child cry. He shouted for help: 'Come back you bastards, there's a child alive'. Maybe they didn't hear him, or they didn't care, but Harry turned, admitting: 'I was terrified what I'd find'.

He went back into a blazing plane, through the darkness, until he found the baby. He carried it out. On the runway he handed it over to the plane's radio operator. If Harry had walked away at that moment, he would have been a hero. But he went back in looking for the mother. As he worked through the wreckage, she suddenly appeared. This was no time for niceties. Harry put her in front of him, led her to the hole where he first escaped, and placing his two massive feet on her back, pushed her out onto the snow.

Harry worked his way out. He walked to the other side of the plane where the flames were greatest and saw the massive damage. Two of the club's most famous players, Bobby Charlton and Denis Violet, were lying half in and half out of the plane. 'I thought they were dead'. He grabbed both by the waistband of their trousers, dragged them through the snow and the wreckage to safety.

And then he went back again, still hunting for his team-mate and old school friend, Jackie Blanchflower. He found the manager, Matt Busby, conscious but holding his chest and crying out about the pain in his legs, and propped him up. And then he found Blanchflower, crying, with the body of his team-mate Roger Byrne lying across him dead. He stopped the blood flowing from a wound on Jackie's arm by tying his tie around it. Suddenly there was a series of explosions from the burning half of the plane, which blew a doctor coming to help clean off his feet.

Harry's voice is deep and rich but as he recounts the minutes after the disaster: there is no drama, no huge emotion. He doesn't regard himself as brave or a hero: 'I was terrified and when I thought the rescuers had everything under control, I sank to my knees and I wept and thanked God some of us were alive'. He believes anyone would act the same way. Many didn't. Twenty three people died, including eight players.

Manchester United recently held a testimonial for Harry Gregg. It made a lot of money. He gave most of it away to charities and special causes. I don't think anyone would be surprised. That's something Harry Gregg would do.

Alan Fisher is an Al Jazeera correspondent. A collection of his writing on the US election is now available as an ebook download, with all profits from 'Romney's Run' going to charities which improve, expand or protect journalism