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  • 17 Jun 2011 8:54 AM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

    njords_saga:
    Very nice Tiborg, i'm a big fan of this story so bumping it.
     

    Thanks mate.

    When reading this story and other stories simmilar to this one you understand there is something more in the name of Manchester United then the football itself.I try as much as i can to tell the new members on here to visit the Legends and Munich sections as much as they can.In my honest believe,you simply can't be a proper United fan without knowing the rich history this great club.From Meredith to Sir Alex..... 

    If they are good enough they are old enough
    If you don't put them in you can't know what you've got
    Reply
  • 16 Jun 2011 9:25 PM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

    read it again

    This isn't the real Njords I no longer post on TR This is unauthorized use of my user by a hacker and coward
    Reply
  • 15 Jun 2011 12:48 PM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

    Tiborg:

     I just found this interesting article on the internet and i thought i'll share it with you all.The article is very long and sorry for that but it's a well worth read.It gives us an insight what really happend that day:

     

     

    The scrapbook remained on the shelf in the living room, gathering dust over the years. Its contents were photocopies of newspaper cuttings, yellowed with age, their edges creased and slightly torn. Occasionally the middle-aged man would pull out the book, read the accounts of what had taken place and stare at the pictures. He knew every word in the stories because there were not many articles, just the few he’d been able to find and copy from the library. He would focus on the face of the man who featured as the central character of each story and wonder just what sort of man he was.

    Vera Lukic would often catch her son, Zoran, gazing at the scrapbook, and would sit with him and wistfully re-tell how she owed her life to the man, and how Zoran and his sister, Vesna, were alive today because of him.

    When the accident happened, Zoran had not been born – that would happen five months later – yet he knew every detail of what had taken place as if he had been there and lived through it.

    His mother, then a young woman of 23 and the wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, had not wanted to fly to London from her home in Belgrade; she had wanted to travel by train, despite the fact that it would take two days. But circumstance had conspired to force her to board flight 609, an aircraft hired from British European Airways to charter Manchester United to and from a football match in the Yugoslav capital.

    There was an irony in Vera’s reluctance to fly because her husband, Veljko Lukic, was a pilot and was, at the time, air attaché at Yugoslavia’s embassy in London. Years later she explained the reticence as a consequence of understanding how dangerous flying could be because so many of her husband’s early comrades had lost their lives in flying accidents and crashes.

    Whatever the reason, Vera was nervous as she boarded the 47-seat BEA Elizabethan aircraft for the flight to Manchester, which was to be followed by a train journey to join her husband in London. With her for the journey was Vesna, her bouncy 22-month-old daughter. Vera explained: “My husband’s time at the embassy in London was soon to end… we spent Christmas in Belgrade, and decided to leave Vesna with my mother to make it easier for travelling when we eventually returned home in the spring.” But once back in London, Colonel Lukic was told his tour of duty would be extended for another year, so it was decided that Vera should return to Belgrade to collect their daughter.

    The opportunity to do so arose when Manchester United was drawn against Red Star Belgrade in the quarter-final of the European Cup and the club hired the BEA aircraft privately. When a Manchester official visited the Yugoslav embassy in London to obtain visas for the players and officials to visit the communist country, he agreed to take an extra passenger, Vera Lukic, to save her an arduous train journey back to her homeland.

    During the four-day stopover in Belgrade, Vera had been vaguely aware of the excitement generated in the city by the match, which ended with Manchester United claiming an overall victory to qualify for the semifinal of the European Cup. The travel organiser had told the young mother to be back at Belgrade’s tiny airport the morning after the match to catch the return flight to Manchester with the other 42 passengers: football players, management, club officials, pressmen and aircrew.

    Sitting in her Belgrade home Vera retold the story: “I remember they all seemed excited. Yes, they were happy and there was lots of laughter. I think somewhere I’d heard Manchester’s players had won the match and there was an obvious reason to be so happy.

    “I was not really focussed on them because I had my daughter to care for, but I was aware of them. They were very polite young men, very respectful.”

    When the flight stopped to re-fuel in Munich, Vera waited with her fellow passengers in the airport lounge. “Some of the players saw me with Vesna and saw she was a child who liked to run and play. She was very active. Several of them asked if they could buy some chocolates for her.

    “They played with her, they chased her around the tables and made her laugh, they were nice young men. I’m sure they were famous faces, but I didn’t know any of them; I was not interested in football. When we went back to the aircraft one of them asked if I needed help carrying Vesna and my small hand case. So nice.”

    The weather in the German city was deteriorating with a combination of wet snow and slush. The passengers and crew reboarded the aircraft for the flight to Manchester. First one attempted take-off was aborted, then a second because of problems with variable thrust and power with the twin engines.

    Vera recalls: “After the second attempt to take off failed we were told there was a problem and we should return to the lounge. This time there was not much talk or laughter. In the restaurant it was silent and it was creepy, I dream about this moment very often. To this day I can see the stress in the eyes of these young men.

    “At one point I was considering going to our consul in Munich to see if I could travel to London with my daughter by train. I even opened my purse to see how much money I had. I seriously considered another form of transport. I was already not happy about flying, but when we twice failed to take off I was very anxious.”

    When the passengers were asked to return for another attempted takeoff, Vera cradled her daughter closer and returned to her bulkhead seats close to the front of the aircraft. There was a noticeable change in atmosphere in the cabin.

    “Occasionally, one of the young men would say a joke but the laughter was nervous,” she added. “I think there was real fear. I had a spare seat next to me for Vesna but I strapped her on my lap. The stewardess came and told me I had not done it properly and showed me how to do it. I remember looking out of the window and then I closed my eyes, hoping we would become airborne. Then things began to fall on my head and I was unconscious.”

    The memories also remain vivid in the mind of Harry Gregg to this day, nearly 50 years on. No matter how many thousands of times he recounts the story, it never changes. He sat in the second row of seats with an increasing sense that something was terribly wrong.

    The first three rows of seats on the 47-seater faced the rear of the aircraft, and from his position, Gregg could look diagonally across the aisle at the poker school which held an empty seat, an invitation for him to join them. In the other seats were some of the most famous names in English football: Roger Byrne, Johnny Berry, Jackie Blanchflower, Ray Wood, Liam Whelan, all of them members of the team that became known as “the Busby Babes”.

    Gregg remembered: “All six of us played poker the previous night and I’d virtually cleaned them out. I was intent on winding them up by refusing to give them the chance of getting their money back on the trip from Belgrade to Munich. They were giving me some stick over that, but my intention was to sit with them after we lifted out of Munich. But not right then.

    “Roger Byrne, our captain, was in the seat next to the window and he looked terrified, his face was contorted with fear. He was actually more scared than I was and somehow I drew courage from his fear. The silence was punctuated by a nervous snigger and wee Johnny Berry said,

    ‘I don’t know what you’re laughing at. We are all going to *** die here.’

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

    Gregg, a rugged giant of a man, remembers putting down the book he was reading: “It was called The Whip, written by someone called Roger MacDonald. 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 because at that time I was still a religious man. So I put down the book and decided to look out of the window.

    “I loosened my tie and 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. I’d been watching the aircraft wheels and the telescopic rods extending to them. They were churning through the slush. The wheels began to lift off the ground.”

    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. Several others were so badly injured they never played again.

    Gregg recalls: “As the thing broke up I seemed to be going round and round, I was sure I was going to die and 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 his face that Gregg realised he was alive. In the darkness there was now silence where moments before there had been the terrible sounds of ripping and tearing followed by sparks and the pungent stench of aircraft fuel.

    He lay in the wreckage considering his own mortality. “I thought I was dead until I felt the blood running down my face,” he says. “I didn’t want to feel my head because I thought the top had been taken off like a hard-boiled egg. I was 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 was a shaft of light. “I realised I wasn’t dead, and reached down to undo my safety belt, but it was not there.” He crawled towards the light and kicked what was a hole in the fuselage larger with the soles of his feet. “I looked out of the hole and there, lying below me, was the first dead person I saw, not a mark on him. It was Bert Whalley, the chief coach, who’d been taken with us as a bonus for developing all those great young players.

    “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 I noticed five people running away, they shouted at me to run. At that moment, the aircraft captain came around from what had been the nose of the aircraft carrying a little fire extinguisher. When he saw me he shouted in his best pucker English accent: ‘Run, you stupid ***, it’s going to explode.’ ”

    But Gregg heard a baby crying. “The crying seemed to bring me back to reality and I shouted at the people running away to come back. But they were still shouting at me to run. I could hear the child crying and felt angry they were running away, so I shouted again, ‘Come back, you ***, 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.”

    So Gregg climbed back into the smouldering wreckage. In the darkness he came across a baby’s romper suit and he thought of his own daughter back home in England. “I was terrified what I’d find beneath it,” he said quietly as he again pictured the scene from 50 years ago.

    “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.”

    Gregg 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 took the baby from Gregg.

    The goalkeeper went back into the wreckage to look for the infant’s mother. She was discovered with a gaping wound to her head. He later learnt that the woman had a fractured skull, two broken legs, severe back injuries and a smashed elbow and arm.

    He describes the rescue: “I was on my backside and was behind the woman, so I used my legs to push her along towards the hole. 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.”

    In among the carnage of the Munich wreck, the man who was later to be named the world’s top goalkeeper at the end of the 1958 World Cup made his greatest saves. His courage rescued 22-month-old Vesna Lukic, her 23-year-old mother, and the unborn child she was carrying.

    Gregg’s account of how he went around the bodies of his team-mates was told in a soft voice: “The captain, Roger Byrne, didn’t have a mark on him and his eyes were open, but he was clearly dead. I’ve always regretted not closing his eyes.

    “The majority of the aircraft was destroyed and one section seemed to have disappeared. I found Ray Wood, and he was wearing a big orange sweater. I tried to move him but couldn’t. Nearby was Albert Scanlon. 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 *** 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 Gregg thought had been killed actually lived: Charlton to play again for Manchester United and to be part of the 1966 England World Cup-winning team; Viollet, Scanlon and Wood to follow careers that would never attain the glory of the Busby Babes. Others, such as Blanchflower, survived but were unable to recover enough to return to football.

    For Harry Gregg the profound effect of rescuing the mother and child and the third person, then unborn, would become a heroic action he treated as much a burden as a moment of pride. For Zoran Lukic, growing up with the legend of the remarkable rescue contained only in a scrapbook was always a story he wanted to turn into flesh and blood.

    The passing of years did little to alleviate the anguish felt by Harry Gregg or Vera Lukic. As far as they were both concerned, their lives had crossed in tragedy then continued on their parallel separate paths.

    Gregg was called the “Hero of Munich” but it was an epithet he wore with considerable discomfort and reluctance. “How in God’s name could I go out and talk of the things that happened?” asked Gregg in his home. “If you talk about such things you’re looking for medals. I was invited one time to the Yugoslav embassy for a ceremony or presentation, but I didn’t reply.

    “My life was about football, and if someone says I was the best goalkeeper in the world and represented my country at every level, I’ll stand up and be proud of that. But to describe me for doing something at the scene of an accident, it’s not something I want to shout about.”

    The complexities of Gregg’s character are partially explained as he walks around his Irish home overlooking Ulster’s rugged northern Atlantic coast, where photographs of past matches and fellow players adorn two small rooms. Yet there is barely a reference to the Munich disaster. From a small plastic envelope he pulled out two treasured yellowed newspaper cuttings. He handed them over: “Here, look at these and understand a little about what makes me tick and what I value.”

    The first is a cutting from the 1958 World Cup in which Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals. It lists a world all-star team picked from the participating countries. In goal is Gregg, the only British player alongside the likes of the Brazilian greats Pelé, Didi and Garrincha. The second cutting is from a war-time edition of the Belfast Telegraph and is a brief story of flight engineer Harry Gregg, a 23-year-old from Mountcollyer Street, Belfast, who was missing presumed dead, shot down over Berlin in 1945.

    “Those two wee cuttings mean more to me than any of that hero stuff,” he said. “One is about being the best in my position, my job, and the other is about my namesake, a relative who was 23 when he gave his life for what he believed in. That’s the stuff I respect. I could never claim to be like

    the other Harry Gregg; he really did deserve admiration. 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’d do if it were to happen again. I might now be the man who runs away. People can talk about what shock is, and say what they’d do in the event of something like that happening. But the truth is, no one really knows.”

    Harry Gregg’s services to football and, in particular, his bravery at Munich, was recognised with the award of an OBE. He accepted it, reluctantly, as a tribute to those who had lost their lives in the disaster. “I didn’t particularly want the award. I was just happy to have got out of the crash with my life. Like many of the others, at first I felt a curious sense of guilt that I’d survived when so many of my friends died. I suppose I had the classic survivor’s guilt, and for 40 years afterwards I couldn’t face meeting Joy Byrne, Roger’s widow, Geoffrey Bent’s widow, Marion, David Pegg’s family, and many others. I couldn’t look those people in the eye knowing I’d lived when their loved ones had perished.

    “It wasn’t until 1998 that I finally confronted my demons, starting at the Munich memorial service at Manchester Cathedral. The next evening, after a United-Bolton match, I finally spoke to Joy Byrne, who said to me, ‘Harry Gregg, why have you been torturing yourself for 40 years?’ That night washed away years of guilt.”

    In Belgrade, in their 18th-floor apartment, the Lukic family explained why they had never met again with Gregg to thank him fully. The contributory reasons were slowly explained by Vera: “Initially, I was ill. It took many, many months to recover. And then… well, time passed and it was difficult as he was very famous then. You must understand that we were from a communist country that was virtually closed to the outside.

    “For my husband and our family it was worse. My husband was a diplomat and he was the leading pilot in Yugoslavia, the first jet pilot. Even in his job in London he had to be so careful. He could not just meet and speak to people from the West; there were always intelligence people to consider. There was paranoia about not associating with Westerners at the time, so to try and meet to say thank you would not have been possible, I don’t think.

    “When we eventually returned to Belgrade we could not write to Mr Gregg because it would also have been forbidden. We could not make any contact, even though we knew we owed him our lives.”

    It seems bizarre that in 1950s London, when the Lukic family were part of the diplomatic circle, they could and did meet with royalty including the Queen and Princess Margaret at Buckingham Palace, yet believed they could not been seen with Harry Gregg.

    It took nearly half a century for the meeting between Gregg and the Lukics to take place. There had been a brief meeting in 1983 on the 25th anniversary of the crash, when Gregg and Vesna appeared on a TV show together. But they went their separate ways. Initially a suggestion for a reunion came from Mr Lukic.

    Late last year the former diplomat sat in the family’s 18th-floor flat overlooking the football stadium where, almost half a century before, Gregg and his Manchester team-mates had played together for the last time and spoke of “wanting to shake the hand of the man who saved my entire family”. He’d spent nearly a lifetime being grateful and said: “I’ll always remember that day when news came through about the crash. I was preparing to leave the embassy in London to travel to Manchester to meet the aircraft when the ambassador, Ivo Vejvoda, called me in and told me the plane had crashed in Munich. According to the first unofficial information, both Vera and Vesna were dead…”

    When he learnt they had survived and were in hospital in Munich, he flew to Munich and was told of their rescue. He searched for Gregg but he was already en route to Manchester.

    Lukic died last summer, weeks before a planned meeting with Gregg. The former goalkeeper decided to travel to Belgrade following the death to pay his respects to the family whose lives he had saved. For the Lukics the despair of death was increased by a deep regret that the two men would now not meet.

    As the meeting approached, Gregg, normally so gregarious and voluble, was silent. Vera and her children, now 49 and 51, were equally fretful. For the reunion Vera laid out an English tea set in the dining room. The meeting was a moment of bashful good manners, neither knowing what to say. Gregg, uncertain if he should proffer his hand or a peck on the cheek, broke the quiet: “Mrs Lukic, how nice to see you and your daughter and son, but how sorry I am that Mr Lukic has passed away. I am so sorry not to have met him.”

    At the rear of the hallway leading to the apartment, Zoran stood peering intently at the man he had only known from the scrapbook. He stepped forward and offered his hand: “Welcome, Mr Gregg, welcome… you know you are always most welcome here… and you know why.”

    Gregg brushed the compliment away, self-conscious as he was led into the living room. For hours they sat telling one another of their lives. The quietest of the group was Zoran. As he stared into the eyes of the man whose face he had known only from the aged newspaper cuttings, he told Gregg: “I have always wanted this moment, to look into your face and say ‘thank you’. I was the third passenger you saved but you were not to know that.”

    Gregg smiled: “Young man, you have nothing to thank me for. 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.”

    After Gregg left, Zoran Lukic sat staring at the scrapbook and the stories of how his family had been saved. He said to his mother: “Now I know the man who gave us our lives. He is everything that I thought he would be.”

     

    Very nice Tiborg, i'm a big fan of this story so bumping it.

    This isn't the real Njords I no longer post on TR This is unauthorized use of my user by a hacker and coward
    Reply
  • 31 May 2011 10:00 AM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

    R.I.PWilted Flower

    there are 3 types of oxo cube light brown is for chicken stock dark brown is for beef stock and light blue is for laughing stock tommy docherty
    Reply
  • 30 May 2011 4:03 PM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

    Wilted Flower 

    SIR RYAN GIGGS

    The greatest player in MUFC history
    Reply
  • 29 May 2011 8:59 AM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

    username1:

    R.I.P THE BABES Wilted Flower

    Wilted Flower

    there are 3 types of oxo cube light brown is for chicken stock dark brown is for beef stock and light blue is for laughing stock tommy docherty
    Reply
  • 28 May 2011 2:01 PM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

    R.I.P THE BABES Wilted Flower

    there are 3 types of oxo cube light brown is for chicken stock dark brown is for beef stock and light blue is for laughing stock tommy docherty
    Reply
  • 27 May 2011 3:07 PM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

     Wilted Flower

    SIR RYAN GIGGS

    The greatest player in MUFC history
    Reply
  • 26 May 2011 4:58 PM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

      Wilted Flower

    SIR RYAN GIGGS

    The greatest player in MUFC history
    Reply
  • 25 May 2011 3:30 PM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

      Wilted Flower

    SIR RYAN GIGGS

    The greatest player in MUFC history
    Reply
  • 24 May 2011 4:19 PM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

     Wilted Flower

    SIR RYAN GIGGS

    The greatest player in MUFC history
    Reply
  • 23 May 2011 10:15 AM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

    Wilted Flower 

    SIR RYAN GIGGS

    The greatest player in MUFC history
    Reply
  • 21 May 2011 9:43 AM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

    R.I.PWilted Flower

    there are 3 types of oxo cube light brown is for chicken stock dark brown is for beef stock and light blue is for laughing stock tommy docherty
    Reply
  • 20 May 2011 11:59 AM

    Re: Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

    Was very much to read but great article.

    Thanks Tiborg Yes

    SIR RYAN GIGGS

    The greatest player in MUFC history
    Reply
  • 20 May 2011 7:45 AM

    Vera Lukic and her story about the Munich aircrash

     I just found this interesting article on the internet and i thought i'll share it with you all.The article is very long and sorry for that but it's a well worth read.It gives us an insight what really happend that day:

     

     

    The scrapbook remained on the shelf in the living room, gathering dust over the years. Its contents were photocopies of newspaper cuttings, yellowed with age, their edges creased and slightly torn. Occasionally the middle-aged man would pull out the book, read the accounts of what had taken place and stare at the pictures. He knew every word in the stories because there were not many articles, just the few he’d been able to find and copy from the library. He would focus on the face of the man who featured as the central character of each story and wonder just what sort of man he was.

    Vera Lukic would often catch her son, Zoran, gazing at the scrapbook, and would sit with him and wistfully re-tell how she owed her life to the man, and how Zoran and his sister, Vesna, were alive today because of him.

    When the accident happened, Zoran had not been born – that would happen five months later – yet he knew every detail of what had taken place as if he had been there and lived through it.

    His mother, then a young woman of 23 and the wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, had not wanted to fly to London from her home in Belgrade; she had wanted to travel by train, despite the fact that it would take two days. But circumstance had conspired to force her to board flight 609, an aircraft hired from British European Airways to charter Manchester United to and from a football match in the Yugoslav capital.

    There was an irony in Vera’s reluctance to fly because her husband, Veljko Lukic, was a pilot and was, at the time, air attaché at Yugoslavia’s embassy in London. Years later she explained the reticence as a consequence of understanding how dangerous flying could be because so many of her husband’s early comrades had lost their lives in flying accidents and crashes.

    Whatever the reason, Vera was nervous as she boarded the 47-seat BEA Elizabethan aircraft for the flight to Manchester, which was to be followed by a train journey to join her husband in London. With her for the journey was Vesna, her bouncy 22-month-old daughter. Vera explained: “My husband’s time at the embassy in London was soon to end… we spent Christmas in Belgrade, and decided to leave Vesna with my mother to make it easier for travelling when we eventually returned home in the spring.” But once back in London, Colonel Lukic was told his tour of duty would be extended for another year, so it was decided that Vera should return to Belgrade to collect their daughter.

    The opportunity to do so arose when Manchester United was drawn against Red Star Belgrade in the quarter-final of the European Cup and the club hired the BEA aircraft privately. When a Manchester official visited the Yugoslav embassy in London to obtain visas for the players and officials to visit the communist country, he agreed to take an extra passenger, Vera Lukic, to save her an arduous train journey back to her homeland.

    During the four-day stopover in Belgrade, Vera had been vaguely aware of the excitement generated in the city by the match, which ended with Manchester United claiming an overall victory to qualify for the semifinal of the European Cup. The travel organiser had told the young mother to be back at Belgrade’s tiny airport the morning after the match to catch the return flight to Manchester with the other 42 passengers: football players, management, club officials, pressmen and aircrew.

    Sitting in her Belgrade home Vera retold the story: “I remember they all seemed excited. Yes, they were happy and there was lots of laughter. I think somewhere I’d heard Manchester’s players had won the match and there was an obvious reason to be so happy.

    “I was not really focussed on them because I had my daughter to care for, but I was aware of them. They were very polite young men, very respectful.”

    When the flight stopped to re-fuel in Munich, Vera waited with her fellow passengers in the airport lounge. “Some of the players saw me with Vesna and saw she was a child who liked to run and play. She was very active. Several of them asked if they could buy some chocolates for her.

    “They played with her, they chased her around the tables and made her laugh, they were nice young men. I’m sure they were famous faces, but I didn’t know any of them; I was not interested in football. When we went back to the aircraft one of them asked if I needed help carrying Vesna and my small hand case. So nice.”

    The weather in the German city was deteriorating with a combination of wet snow and slush. The passengers and crew reboarded the aircraft for the flight to Manchester. First one attempted take-off was aborted, then a second because of problems with variable thrust and power with the twin engines.

    Vera recalls: “After the second attempt to take off failed we were told there was a problem and we should return to the lounge. This time there was not much talk or laughter. In the restaurant it was silent and it was creepy, I dream about this moment very often. To this day I can see the stress in the eyes of these young men.

    “At one point I was considering going to our consul in Munich to see if I could travel to London with my daughter by train. I even opened my purse to see how much money I had. I seriously considered another form of transport. I was already not happy about flying, but when we twice failed to take off I was very anxious.”

    When the passengers were asked to return for another attempted takeoff, Vera cradled her daughter closer and returned to her bulkhead seats close to the front of the aircraft. There was a noticeable change in atmosphere in the cabin.

    “Occasionally, one of the young men would say a joke but the laughter was nervous,” she added. “I think there was real fear. I had a spare seat next to me for Vesna but I strapped her on my lap. The stewardess came and told me I had not done it properly and showed me how to do it. I remember looking out of the window and then I closed my eyes, hoping we would become airborne. Then things began to fall on my head and I was unconscious.”

    The memories also remain vivid in the mind of Harry Gregg to this day, nearly 50 years on. No matter how many thousands of times he recounts the story, it never changes. He sat in the second row of seats with an increasing sense that something was terribly wrong.

    The first three rows of seats on the 47-seater faced the rear of the aircraft, and from his position, Gregg could look diagonally across the aisle at the poker school which held an empty seat, an invitation for him to join them. In the other seats were some of the most famous names in English football: Roger Byrne, Johnny Berry, Jackie Blanchflower, Ray Wood, Liam Whelan, all of them members of the team that became known as “the Busby Babes”.

    Gregg remembered: “All six of us played poker the previous night and I’d virtually cleaned them out. I was intent on winding them up by refusing to give them the chance of getting their money back on the trip from Belgrade to Munich. They were giving me some stick over that, but my intention was to sit with them after we lifted out of Munich. But not right then.

    “Roger Byrne, our captain, was in the seat next to the window and he looked terrified, his face was contorted with fear. He was actually more scared than I was and somehow I drew courage from his fear. The silence was punctuated by a nervous snigger and wee Johnny Berry said,

    ‘I don’t know what you’re laughing at. We are all going to *** die here.’

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

    Gregg, a rugged giant of a man, remembers putting down the book he was reading: “It was called The Whip, written by someone called Roger MacDonald. 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 because at that time I was still a religious man. So I put down the book and decided to look out of the window.

    “I loosened my tie and 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. I’d been watching the aircraft wheels and the telescopic rods extending to them. They were churning through the slush. The wheels began to lift off the ground.”

    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. Several others were so badly injured they never played again.

    Gregg recalls: “As the thing broke up I seemed to be going round and round, I was sure I was going to die and 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 his face that Gregg realised he was alive. In the darkness there was now silence where moments before there had been the terrible sounds of ripping and tearing followed by sparks and the pungent stench of aircraft fuel.

    He lay in the wreckage considering his own mortality. “I thought I was dead until I felt the blood running down my face,” he says. “I didn’t want to feel my head because I thought the top had been taken off like a hard-boiled egg. I was 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 was a shaft of light. “I realised I wasn’t dead, and reached down to undo my safety belt, but it was not there.” He crawled towards the light and kicked what was a hole in the fuselage larger with the soles of his feet. “I looked out of the hole and there, lying below me, was the first dead person I saw, not a mark on him. It was Bert Whalley, the chief coach, who’d been taken with us as a bonus for developing all those great young players.

    “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 I noticed five people running away, they shouted at me to run. At that moment, the aircraft captain came around from what had been the nose of the aircraft carrying a little fire extinguisher. When he saw me he shouted in his best pucker English accent: ‘Run, you stupid ***, it’s going to explode.’ ”

    But Gregg heard a baby crying. “The crying seemed to bring me back to reality and I shouted at the people running away to come back. But they were still shouting at me to run. I could hear the child crying and felt angry they were running away, so I shouted again, ‘Come back, you ***, 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.”

    So Gregg climbed back into the smouldering wreckage. In the darkness he came across a baby’s romper suit and he thought of his own daughter back home in England. “I was terrified what I’d find beneath it,” he said quietly as he again pictured the scene from 50 years ago.

    “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.”

    Gregg 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 took the baby from Gregg.

    The goalkeeper went back into the wreckage to look for the infant’s mother. She was discovered with a gaping wound to her head. He later learnt that the woman had a fractured skull, two broken legs, severe back injuries and a smashed elbow and arm.

    He describes the rescue: “I was on my backside and was behind the woman, so I used my legs to push her along towards the hole. 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.”

    In among the carnage of the Munich wreck, the man who was later to be named the world’s top goalkeeper at the end of the 1958 World Cup made his greatest saves. His courage rescued 22-month-old Vesna Lukic, her 23-year-old mother, and the unborn child she was carrying.

    Gregg’s account of how he went around the bodies of his team-mates was told in a soft voice: “The captain, Roger Byrne, didn’t have a mark on him and his eyes were open, but he was clearly dead. I’ve always regretted not closing his eyes.

    “The majority of the aircraft was destroyed and one section seemed to have disappeared. I found Ray Wood, and he was wearing a big orange sweater. I tried to move him but couldn’t. Nearby was Albert Scanlon. 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 *** 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 Gregg thought had been killed actually lived: Charlton to play again for Manchester United and to be part of the 1966 England World Cup-winning team; Viollet, Scanlon and Wood to follow careers that would never attain the glory of the Busby Babes. Others, such as Blanchflower, survived but were unable to recover enough to return to football.

    For Harry Gregg the profound effect of rescuing the mother and child and the third person, then unborn, would become a heroic action he treated as much a burden as a moment of pride. For Zoran Lukic, growing up with the legend of the remarkable rescue contained only in a scrapbook was always a story he wanted to turn into flesh and blood.

    The passing of years did little to alleviate the anguish felt by Harry Gregg or Vera Lukic. As far as they were both concerned, their lives had crossed in tragedy then continued on their parallel separate paths.

    Gregg was called the “Hero of Munich” but it was an epithet he wore with considerable discomfort and reluctance. “How in God’s name could I go out and talk of the things that happened?” asked Gregg in his home. “If you talk about such things you’re looking for medals. I was invited one time to the Yugoslav embassy for a ceremony or presentation, but I didn’t reply.

    “My life was about football, and if someone says I was the best goalkeeper in the world and represented my country at every level, I’ll stand up and be proud of that. But to describe me for doing something at the scene of an accident, it’s not something I want to shout about.”

    The complexities of Gregg’s character are partially explained as he walks around his Irish home overlooking Ulster’s rugged northern Atlantic coast, where photographs of past matches and fellow players adorn two small rooms. Yet there is barely a reference to the Munich disaster. From a small plastic envelope he pulled out two treasured yellowed newspaper cuttings. He handed them over: “Here, look at these and understand a little about what makes me tick and what I value.”

    The first is a cutting from the 1958 World Cup in which Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals. It lists a world all-star team picked from the participating countries. In goal is Gregg, the only British player alongside the likes of the Brazilian greats Pelé, Didi and Garrincha. The second cutting is from a war-time edition of the Belfast Telegraph and is a brief story of flight engineer Harry Gregg, a 23-year-old from Mountcollyer Street, Belfast, who was missing presumed dead, shot down over Berlin in 1945.

    “Those two wee cuttings mean more to me than any of that hero stuff,” he said. “One is about being the best in my position, my job, and the other is about my namesake, a relative who was 23 when he gave his life for what he believed in. That’s the stuff I respect. I could never claim to be like

    the other Harry Gregg; he really did deserve admiration. 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’d do if it were to happen again. I might now be the man who runs away. People can talk about what shock is, and say what they’d do in the event of something like that happening. But the truth is, no one really knows.”

    Harry Gregg’s services to football and, in particular, his bravery at Munich, was recognised with the award of an OBE. He accepted it, reluctantly, as a tribute to those who had lost their lives in the disaster. “I didn’t particularly want the award. I was just happy to have got out of the crash with my life. Like many of the others, at first I felt a curious sense of guilt that I’d survived when so many of my friends died. I suppose I had the classic survivor’s guilt, and for 40 years afterwards I couldn’t face meeting Joy Byrne, Roger’s widow, Geoffrey Bent’s widow, Marion, David Pegg’s family, and many others. I couldn’t look those people in the eye knowing I’d lived when their loved ones had perished.

    “It wasn’t until 1998 that I finally confronted my demons, starting at the Munich memorial service at Manchester Cathedral. The next evening, after a United-Bolton match, I finally spoke to Joy Byrne, who said to me, ‘Harry Gregg, why have you been torturing yourself for 40 years?’ That night washed away years of guilt.”

    In Belgrade, in their 18th-floor apartment, the Lukic family explained why they had never met again with Gregg to thank him fully. The contributory reasons were slowly explained by Vera: “Initially, I was ill. It took many, many months to recover. And then… well, time passed and it was difficult as he was very famous then. You must understand that we were from a communist country that was virtually closed to the outside.

    “For my husband and our family it was worse. My husband was a diplomat and he was the leading pilot in Yugoslavia, the first jet pilot. Even in his job in London he had to be so careful. He could not just meet and speak to people from the West; there were always intelligence people to consider. There was paranoia about not associating with Westerners at the time, so to try and meet to say thank you would not have been possible, I don’t think.

    “When we eventually returned to Belgrade we could not write to Mr Gregg because it would also have been forbidden. We could not make any contact, even though we knew we owed him our lives.”

    It seems bizarre that in 1950s London, when the Lukic family were part of the diplomatic circle, they could and did meet with royalty including the Queen and Princess Margaret at Buckingham Palace, yet believed they could not been seen with Harry Gregg.

    It took nearly half a century for the meeting between Gregg and the Lukics to take place. There had been a brief meeting in 1983 on the 25th anniversary of the crash, when Gregg and Vesna appeared on a TV show together. But they went their separate ways. Initially a suggestion for a reunion came from Mr Lukic.

    Late last year the former diplomat sat in the family’s 18th-floor flat overlooking the football stadium where, almost half a century before, Gregg and his Manchester team-mates had played together for the last time and spoke of “wanting to shake the hand of the man who saved my entire family”. He’d spent nearly a lifetime being grateful and said: “I’ll always remember that day when news came through about the crash. I was preparing to leave the embassy in London to travel to Manchester to meet the aircraft when the ambassador, Ivo Vejvoda, called me in and told me the plane had crashed in Munich. According to the first unofficial information, both Vera and Vesna were dead…”

    When he learnt they had survived and were in hospital in Munich, he flew to Munich and was told of their rescue. He searched for Gregg but he was already en route to Manchester.

    Lukic died last summer, weeks before a planned meeting with Gregg. The former goalkeeper decided to travel to Belgrade following the death to pay his respects to the family whose lives he had saved. For the Lukics the despair of death was increased by a deep regret that the two men would now not meet.

    As the meeting approached, Gregg, normally so gregarious and voluble, was silent. Vera and her children, now 49 and 51, were equally fretful. For the reunion Vera laid out an English tea set in the dining room. The meeting was a moment of bashful good manners, neither knowing what to say. Gregg, uncertain if he should proffer his hand or a peck on the cheek, broke the quiet: “Mrs Lukic, how nice to see you and your daughter and son, but how sorry I am that Mr Lukic has passed away. I am so sorry not to have met him.”

    At the rear of the hallway leading to the apartment, Zoran stood peering intently at the man he had only known from the scrapbook. He stepped forward and offered his hand: “Welcome, Mr Gregg, welcome… you know you are always most welcome here… and you know why.”

    Gregg brushed the compliment away, self-conscious as he was led into the living room. For hours they sat telling one another of their lives. The quietest of the group was Zoran. As he stared into the eyes of the man whose face he had known only from the aged newspaper cuttings, he told Gregg: “I have always wanted this moment, to look into your face and say ‘thank you’. I was the third passenger you saved but you were not to know that.”

    Gregg smiled: “Young man, you have nothing to thank me for. 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.”

    After Gregg left, Zoran Lukic sat staring at the scrapbook and the stories of how his family had been saved. He said to his mother: “Now I know the man who gave us our lives. He is everything that I thought he would be.”

     

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