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Last Updated: Monday, 4 February 2008, 09:58 GMT
Waiting for news from Munich
Munich survivor Ray Wood drinks a beer in hospital following the disaster of 6 February 1958

By Bill Wilson
BBC News

Fifty years after the Munich air disaster, the wife of one of the Man Utd players on board the plane recalls the agonising wait for news about the crash that claimed 23 lives.

It is the late afternoon of 6 February 1958 and housewife Elizabeth Wood is changing her daughter's nappy at their terraced home in Manchester.

As the 22-year-old ponders what to prepare for her husband Ray, a goalkeeper with Manchester United, to eat when he gets home, a neighbour knocks on the window.

"It was a Thursday afternoon, and my daughter Denise was nearly two," recalls Elizabeth.

"I was changing her and Ray was due home at about six o'clock and I was thinking about what to cook for his tea, thinking he might like a nice piece of gammon after having been abroad."

Born Hebburn-on-Tyne, County Durham, on 11 June 1931
Signed for Man Utd from Darlington for 5,000 in 1949
Twice League Champion
Capped three times by England
Also played for Huddersfield, Bradford, Barnsley
Coached Cyprus and Kenya national teams
Managed in the US, Ireland, Zambia, Canada, Greece, Kenya, Kuwait, UAE
Died Bexhill, East Sussex, on 7 July 2002

Then a neighbour beckoned to her at the window.

"She asked if I had heard the news. They had interrupted the radio programme Mrs Dale's Diary to say there had been an accident at Munich with the boys.

"She said 'But Ray's all right isn't he - he's at home?'.

"Because Ray had not played in the game against Red Star Belgrade she thought he hadn't travelled with the team.

"That poor woman, she felt terrible when she realised what she had said, but there was no easy way about it. I had to be told what had happened."

'Horrific day'

It was the start of what the North Easterner, now 72, describes as a nightmare.

"I still remember the day vividly - it was horrific.

"It was torture - I could not get any news about Ray. I was just sitting in the living room staring into space like I had been anaesthetised."

Elizabeth Wood at home
Elizabeth Wood with souvenirs of Ray's time at Manchester United

She says the police and a local JP called in to the house to see if there was anything they could do to help and to offer words of encouragement.

But the time dragged on without news whether Ray - who had joined United from Darlington in his native North East for 5,000 in 1949 - was dead or alive.

By 1958 Ray had won league championship medals in 1956 and 1957, and been runner-up in the 1957 FA Cup final, where he was knocked out cold by a crude charge by Aston Villa's Peter McParland.

Despite losing his place to Harry Gregg late in 1957, Ray was still part of the United squad and was with them on the BEA 609 flight that crashed into a house at Munich Riem airport.

"The club was going for so many trophies they almost had a 'double team' with two players for every position, which is why so many of them travelled to Belgrade," she says.

'My first flight'

As Elizabeth agonised at home, her neighbours walked into Manchester city centre to get the first editions of the newspapers.

"I can still hear them all coming marching back up the street and they were shouting that Ray was alive," she recalls.

Elizabeth and Ray Wood
Elizabeth and Ray Wood in Cyprus in 1972 when he was national coach

"It was wonderful news. But then there was a new nightmare, worrying about what his injuries might be.

"BEA phoned and Barbara Viollett, the wife of player Dennis Viollett, also rang me.

"She was expecting her third child, but despite that we made arrangements to go to Munich together.

"I had never flown before and have absolutely no memory of us getting there."

BEA gave them money every day and put them up in a "fabulous hotel", but there was still the horror to be faced at the Rechts Der Isar Hospital in Munich.

Double vision

"I did not know what to expect, but was just so glad that Ray was alive. His face was burnt, he had a split lip, had taken a terrible blow to his head and he had broken his leg.

Ray Wood in action for Manchester United

"Professor Maurer was going to operate as Ray had double vision but fortunately he did not, and Ray's vision returned to normal after three months.

"The professor explained that the accident was so horrific that it could affect Ray at any time, that it might not hit him for five or even 30 years afterwards.

"I always felt Ray was running after Munich, he was always on the move. After leaving United for Huddersfield, Bradford and Barnsley, he went abroad to so many countries. Till the day he died he kept running."

That metaphorical fleeing from the disaster took Ray to coach and manage around the globe, in the US, Ireland, Zambia, Canada, Greece, Kenya, Kuwait, UAE and Cyprus.

'Russian roulette'

Elizabeth went to the hospital every day for eight weeks and Ray - who would only play one more game for United - explained what happened on the aircraft.

"He said that on the third - and fatal - take-off attempt, the players all changed seats in a form of 'Russian roulette'.

Eddie Colman: "lively and daring player"
Tommy Taylor: "had a wicked sense of humour"
David Pegg: "a very handsome guy"
Mark Jones: "distinctive with cap and pipe"
Billy Whelan: "a lovely boy, very pure"
Roger Byrne: "serious, and a great captain"
Duncan Edwards: "greatest player ever seen"
Geoff Bent: "only one I did not know so well"

"Ray never usually sat near the front, but this time he found himself there. Next to him was Billy Whelan, who was a very big Catholic.

"As they shot along the runway, Ray loosened his tie, took out his false teeth, put them in his top pocket and leant forward in an emergency position.

"He said to Billy 'we are going to die' and Billy replied 'I'm ready'. Billy was one of those who died."

'Wonderful characters'

As she visited Ray in the hospital she was able to follow the progress of the other injured players and staff, including manager Matt Busby.

"Duncan Edwards was on the ward for the seriously injured on the fourth floor - Duncan, Johnny Berry and Matt were there, Matt in a big oxygen tent.

1st October 1956: Manchester United FC goalkeeper, Ray Wood (1931 - 2002).
Ray in his prime during the 1956/57 Championship-winning season

"The people at the hospital were wonderful. Duncan was surrounded by all these nurses. He looked too big for the bed. His injuries were terrible, but he could still speak to people.

"Duncan had such an air about him - he would puff out his chest when he ran out onto the pitch, he really loved the club."

Everyone was shocked, she says, when this "indestructible" man died of his injuries two weeks later.

Fifty years on, she says the Busby Babes were wonderful characters.

"Sir Matt Busby groomed them so well, he was a father figure to them.

"The boys were all such a good bunch - they were all real gentlemen and played wonderful football."

Elizabeth will be returning to Old Trafford as a guest of the club for a memorial service on Wednesday, 6 February.

Ray and Elizabeth divorced in the 1970s and he died of a heart attack in 2002, but she has great memories of his time at Old Trafford.

"I would not change being married to a Busby Babe and being there at that time - it was a great honour."

Below is a selection of your comments:

Aged 74 now and count myself as one of the very lucky people to have seen most of the games the Babes played before Munich. The pleasure they gave us all will never fade.
W.G.Ellis, Manby Louth Lincolnshire

I was 5 when the Munich air crash happened. I didn't know a lot about football, but I knew we supported Manchester Utd because my grandparents lived near Old Trafford and my Dad and our Uncle Jim next door used to go to matches at Old Trafford together. Although I was too young to understand the full horror of the crash, I knew something terrible had happened when I saw Uncle Jim and then my Dad both walking home from work with tears streaming down their faces. It's something I'll never forget.
Pauline Lloyd, Stockport, England

I think this story is a real tragedy and is heartbreaking to read about a wife not knowing weather her husband was alive or not. I cant understand how that must have felt. Luckiy though it seems that she was one of the better off wives as she got to spend some time with her husband unlike all those widows. My heart goes out to them all.
Lor, Sutton,Surrey,England

The players of a bygone era - esp those on that faitful plane could teach the louts that play soccer today a thing or two. The players in the Manchester United crash were some of the last of their kind - a gentlemen's game and not the greedy airheadness that the majority of the professional(?) game has today.
S Milne, Alloa, Scotland

Seems a bit strange this story, she had a phone but nobody called her yet they called Violets wife who then called her.
Les watson, Swansea

Whilst in the RAF during 1956, in Cyprus through-out the emergency ( Suez ) some of the Busby Babe who were doing the call up time, used to play football matches against anyone who could get a team togther, this was at a place called Happy Valley, along the road from EPISKOPI, good lads great times, we usually lost by at least 10 goals.
Ian Foote, Immingham N.E.Lincs U.K

I was in my late teens at the time and an ardent fan of the club. I was very aggrieved at the foul on Ray in the 1957 cup final which cost us the double. Nevertheless the team fought back from 2-0 down and scored. They even had a goal disallowed for offside. If they had equalised it would have gone into extra time and I would have been late for my first date with a girl I later married! In 1958 I listened to every news bulletin about the crash; I think they gave the names of the survivors as they knew them and the awful thing was you knew in your heart that many of the names not called out had probably not survived. It seemed like the whole team and apart from Ray I believe only Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton ever played at the same level again for the club.
Graham Hardy, Hawkchurch, near Axminster Devon

A most moving story. As Elizabeth Wood said, "The boys were all such a good bunch - they were all real gentlemen and played wonderful football." What a shame that many of today's players cannot emulate that. There was a decency then and I hope the commemoration of that awful disaster when so many players and journalists died will be marked with decency this weekend.
Jon, London

I am a Liverpool fan, and our club has had its own tragedies in the past namely Hillsborough and Heysel. Even though the players who died were from one of, if not our main rival in football, it is awful to think how this affected the other players, the fans and of course everyone else associated with the club. I just hope that the Manchester City fans at Eastlands on Sunday the 10th honour those who died on the 50th anniverary of the Munich disaster by joining in the minutes silence. Let the rivalry between the two teams start at 1.30pm, and not before the game.
Mark Ashall, Northwich, Cheshire, UK

I vividly recall this event. At the time I was a Marine Engineer aboard a Port Line ship, the Port Townsville. We were just off the southeast coast of Ireland on our way to Liverpool after a five months trip to New Zealand and Australia. One of the other engineers aboard had a radio, and we were both trying to get music on the B.B.C. when we picked up a news flash about the crash. With communication being what it was in those days it was difficult for us to have any details of the actual occurence, the weather we were in in the Irish Sea interfered with the radio's reception, and any news we got was very sketchy. When we docked in Liverpool the next day we had as much news as was available, and needless to say, like the rest of Britain, and indeed the world, we felt a truly genuine sense of loss for all those involved, and we were in a state of mourning, even though we had no close personal ties to the victims. I often wonder what it would have been like to see so many stars of the sporting world develop into maturity, and watch them perform, they were truly a very talented group, and would have made a major mark on British sports. Sir Matt Busby is to be revered for what he did after surviving the crash, he and all his associates are, in my opinion most deserving of all the accolades bestowed on them after that tradgedy.

Ray became a PE master for a while at my school when I was 9 or 10. He taught me how to be a goalkeeper. I still have very fond memories of him.
Mike Butler, Nottingham

I was a schoolgirl at Stretford Grammar School for Girls (not so far from the United ground). The day after the Munich Disaster remains a vivid memory. No doubt for our teachers it was a very difficult one, coping with the emotional turmoil of several hundred sometimes hysterical schoolgirls. Some of us had close connections with United (although mine was a devoted City family). Our headmistress, the formidable Vera Ashwell, held a special morning assembly with a steely no-nonsense message about the need to get a grip in spite of the immense sadness. (Her gritty approach to life has inspired many of her old girls.) Nevertheless, a group of girls set off to join the crowds at the Old Trafford ground to leave flowers. And later that year I made my first and only trip to the ground to mark the return of the Busby Babes, team loyalties set aside.
Bobbie Wells, Cambridge

Ray Wood or Uncle Ray as I called him was a lovely man. The Woods were friends of my family and we lived in Kenya at the same times as them in the was a sad loss when he died.

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