My Munich agony: Why me? Why did I survive? In the first part of our exclusive extracts from his autobiography, Sir Bobby Charlton recalls the horror of the 1958 air disaster . . . and the question that haunted him I need to go back before Munich if I am to provide any insight into what was the central drama of my life, something which informed, inevitably, all that came after. I need to try to recreate the sheer, uncomplicated thrill that came with being a member of this young team. A team which, perhaps more than any other in the history of the game, was filled not only with talent but with what seemed a grace which came from some unchartable source, something beyond even the planning and the vision of the great Matt Busby. We felt nothing was beyond us as we talked so animatedly and laughed on that journey home from Belgrade, where we had played with great maturity to reach the semi-finals of the European Cup. In two days we were to face Wolves in another game of vital importance, one which could prove decisive in our pursuit of a third straight league title. The sky was low and filled with snow as we landed in Munich for refuelling, but we saw little or no reason to doubt that our own horizons stretched out seamlessly. You looked around and saw one strength piled upon another. If we didn’t have Di Stéfano or Gento, we had virtuosos of our own: Duncan [Edwards] was touching new levels of authority, Dennis Viollet was playing with tremendous bite and was just irrepressible around the box, and Eddie Colman was producing a little more swagger and a little more confidence with every game. Harry Gregg had brought a lot to the team with his fierce protection of the goal and his fighting spirit. On top of all this was the extraordinary leadership of Roger Byrne. It was a wonderful state of mind we took on to the plane. In the cabin there was a buzz of conversation and bursts of laughter and the card players were aggressively at work. We were heading home for yet another red carpet welcome, another return of conquering heroes. Ushering us through the airport in Belgrade, Busby had no doubt been concerned by the need for a prompt departure and swift completion of our trip. The requirement to rush home to Manchester through the snow-filled skies of Europe had been spelled out by the Football League, which had been so emphatic in its refusal to give a blessing to our continental mission. Under new league regulations, any team competing in Europe had to be back in England a full 24 hours before they were due to play a championship game. League secretary [Alan] Hardaker no doubt argued that he was protecting the “integrity” of the Football League, preventing important matches being squeezed into the programme in the shadow of European action. Another interpretation was that he was making it as difficult as possible for the man who had defied him with his insistence that United would fight on this new frontier of football. When we landed in Munich the weather was as bad as I had ever seen it on my football travels; beneath the low clouds the sky was filled with snowflakes, and when we touched down we saw there were six or seven inches of slush on the runway. However, we were assured that we would be on our way soon enough. There was no point of concern until after the second aborted take-off. Then the mood dipped, not in any dramatic way but quite perceptibly; certainly conversation became less chirpy and the card players were less absorbed by their game. By the third attempt at take-off, conversation had dwindled almost to nothing. I looked out of the window and as I did so I was suddenly conscious of the silence inside the plane. Outside, the snowy field flew by, but not quickly enough it seemed. I knew it was too long when I saw the fence and then we were on the house. There was an awful noise, the grind of metal on metal. Then there was the void. When I came to, I was on the ground, outside the wrecked plane, but still strapped into my seat. Dennis Viollet had been pulled out of his seat and was lying beside me, conscious but obviously hurt. Later, I learned that Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes had helped to get some of the injured out of the plane. I could hear sirens blaring and then Dennis said, “What’s the matter, Bobby, what’s gone on?” Instantly I regretted my reply, which was, “Dennis, it’s dreadful.” He was not in a good condition and at that point I should have protected him from the worst of the truth, but as the horror was overwhelming me, I suppose I was removed from rational thought. I saw the bodies in the snow, though one small and passing mercy was that I didn’t recognise among the dead either of my closest friends, Eddie Colman, who with his family had befriended me so warmly in my early days at Old Trafford, and David Pegg from Yorkshire, who shared my roots in the mining community. In addition to my seven, ultimately eight, fallen teammates, the carnage that confronted my still blinking and dazed eyes had robbed another 14, and in time 15, souls of their lives. Eventually, I was helped into a mini-truck. Gregg and Foulkes came with me as we raced through the blizzard into the city hospital. There, the walking wounded were taken to a waiting room. I had one small bruise on my head and I was suffering from concussion. Reality came drifting in and out, but at one of its sharpest points I noticed an orderly smiling, as if to say, it seemed to me, that all this was a routine matter and that the world would still be turning when the dawn came. But of course it wouldn’t, not for the football team that was supposed to conquer the world. I was filled with rage and it was directed at this hospital worker who seemed to understand none of that. I screamed at him. What I said exactly is, like much of that night and the days that followed, lost to me now, but I remember vividly the pain that came to me so hard at that moment. My next memory is of waking the following morning in a hospital ward. In a nearby bed was a young German, who was looking at a newspaper that was spread before him. I could see from the photographs that he was reading about the crash. He spoke little English, but when he looked up and saw me he managed to say, “I’m sorry.” At that moment I had to know who had gone and who had survived. The German lad read out the names and then, after a short pause, said, “Dead.” It was a terrible roll call, and I make no excuse for repeating once again . . . Roger Byrne, David Pegg, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor, Billy Whelan, Mark Jones and Geoff Bent. How could it possibly be? It was as though my life was being taken away, piece by piece. There was some relief when I was moved into a ward with a few of the other survivors. I wanted to shout, “At least we’re OK,” but then I thought of Duncan Edwards, who was fighting for his life, and the badly injured Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower, who would never play again, and that took away any such urge. Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes passed through the ward on their way to what they saw as their duty to the dead, back at Old Trafford. I shivered when I thought how it must be in Manchester. We had been screened from much of the news, but then, as the days passed, you heard of the funerals and something deep inside you was grateful that you weren’t there, because it would have been so hard to say goodbye with so many eyes on you. All the time the question came pounding in: why me, why did I survive? When you heard how Manchester was stricken, how many people were turning up at Old Trafford, aimless in their grief but just wanting to be as close as they could to the team who had so lifted their lives, who they had seen growing up before their eyes, you felt there had to be a match as soon as possible. A match would take away some of the horror. It was a small piece of escapism and it didn’t take you far. It couldn’t, because upstairs Duncan Edwards and Matt Busby were in oxygen tents and fighting uphill battles to stay alive. Eventually, I was able to see them both. I went up with my heart pounding. Later, I was told that Duncan’s fight, which lasted nearly a fortnight, was the result of freakish strength and willpower. The German doctors did all they could and then just had to shake their heads in disbelief that anyone could fight so hard against such odds. He was in obvious pain when I visited him, but his spirit was still as strong as ever. When he saw me he threw back his head and said, “I’ve been waiting for you. Where the bloody hell have you been?” I whispered my encouragement, feeling my eyes smart while wondering all over again how it could be that this young giant of the game was so stricken while I could prepare to walk down the stairs before packing for home. Big Dunc was more than the admired teammate and older friend. He was the embodiment of everything I admired in a footballer. He had skill and courage and tremendous power. He could do anything, play anywhere, and the world awaited the full scale of his glory. There was never an instinct to try to put Munich out of mind, to say that it was something terribly sad but had to be relegated to the past because how else could you deal with the present and the future? Munich was just too big, too overpowering, to permit that kind of reaction. It was something that you knew, right from the start, you had to learn to live with. It was a reality that was reinforced with every account of a funeral, every description by Jimmy Murphy [the United coach] of how it was at Old Trafford. Jimmy, typically, was the strongest presence in those days when the Old Man was surviving only with the help of an oxygen tent. He said that we had to fight for our existence – and the memory of the teammates we had lost. He had been through a war when men had to live with the loss of so many comrades, had to fight on through the suffering and live with what was left to them. It was the same now at Manchester United, Jimmy insisted. But then later I heard that it was just a front that Jimmy put on. One day he was discovered in a back corridor of the hospital, sobbing his heart out in pain at the loss of so many young players. Very soon it was clear that Jimmy Murphy, and everyone else at the club, needed one thing to happen more than anything. They needed another match, some sense of continuity, some belief that, however haltingly, the club was moving forward from the worst of the grief. For several days I had pushed away the idea of returning to Manchester, of picking up again the challenge of playing football, but now I felt a few stirrings, partly inspired by the courage of Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes, partly by the fact that before I left the hospital I was able to walk up the stairs and see both Duncan and the Old Man. Both of them were so ill that it was obvious we were in danger of losing them. To lose one would be the most terrible blow; to lose both, unthinkable. Something had to be done. Their work could not be allowed just to slide away – though saying that seemed a lot easier than dredging up the effort and the will to begin the job. - On February 19, a patched-up United team beat Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth round in the first post-Munich match. Charlton watched from the stands. There was a blank in the match programme in place of the United team list.