Tragedy struck in 1958, when the plane carrying the team home from a European Cup match crashed on take-off at a refueling stop in Munich, Germany. The Munich air disaster of 6 February 1958 claimed the lives of eight players – Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam “Billy” Whelan – and another fifteen passengers, including United staff members Walter Crickmer, Bert Whalley and Tom Curry. There had already been two attempted take-offs before the fatal third, which was caused by a build-up of slush at the end of the runway slowing the plane down to a speed insufficient for take-off. The plane skidded off the end of the runway, through a fence and into an unoccupied house. United goalkeeper Harry Gregg managed to maintain consciousness after the crash, and through fear of the plane exploding at any second, he grabbed both Bobby Charlton who had made his United dibut less than 18 months earlier and Dennis Viollet by their waistbands and dragged them to safety. Seven United players died at the scene, while Duncan Edwards died a fortnight later in hospital. Right-winger Johnny Berry also survived the accident, but injuries sustained in the accident brought his football career to a premature end. Matt Busby was not given much hope of survival by the Munich doctors, and was even given the Last Rites at one point, but recovered miraculously and was finally let out of hospital after having spent over two months there.
There were rumours of the club folding and withdrawing from competitions, but with Jimmy Murphy taking over as manager while Busby recovered from his injuries, the club continued playing with a makeshift side. Despite the accident, they reached the FA Cup final again, where they lost to Bolton Wanderers. At the end of the season, UEFA offered the FA the opportunity to submit both United and the eventual champions, Wolverhampton Wanderers, for the 195859 European Cup as a tribute to the victims, but the FA declined. United managed to push Wolves right to the wire the following season, finishing in a creditable 2nd place; not bad for a team that had lost nine first-team players to the Munich air disaster.
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