Belfast Telegraph

The tragedy is we all die, but unlike Munich air disaster victims not all are remembered

By Mike Gilson

Most people know something about the Munich air disaster. The terrible plane crash that almost wiped out Busby's Babes and claimed the lives of 23 people on that icy runway 55 years ago.

It is a tragedy that still reaches out to us so that we can almost feel the searing heat of the flames in the cockpit and the still cold of the snow-filled sky as Manchester United's eternal heroes, like our own Harry Gregg, risk their lives to rescue friends.

But do you recall the Winter Hill crash just 21 days later that claimed 35 lives? Unlikely. Virtually all the passengers on a Bristol 170 Wayfarer flying from the Isle of Man to Manchester that grim February day died when the plane flew into the snow-covered summit of the huge, unforgiving and desolate Winter Hill, near Bolton.

Cartwheeling in the snow, it made such little noise on impact that even workers manning the nearby television mast heard nothing until the blood stained co-pilot knocked on their door and told them of the hell that existed but a few hundred yards away.

In a sense, Winter Hill has remained as hidden and unmarked a story today as it was an overshadowed, undemonstrative tragedy back then. It is almost as if, by playing out up in the middle of nowhere, it was apologising for making a fuss. Remembered by the few who lost loved-ones and the rescuers still alive, there is a small plaque high up on that part of the bleak West Pennine Moors, but that is about it. It is just one of many tragedies that are almost lost in time. Indeed, the unforgiving Winter Hill is something of a forgotten graveyard for flights of the 50s, its peak ready to devour planes confused by the rudimentary navigational beacons of the time.

But the Winter Hill disaster is still out there, just. In memories, in words written by individuals who have thankfully appointed themselves local historians, in unread archives and now way down in our digital spaces.

I know of it for this prosaic reason. Having a bit of a nostalgic vinyl record day last Saturday, I came across an old favourite track from 80s' band A Certain Ratio called Winter Hill. I'd often wondered why they called it that and went online to find out more.

Two hours later, I had become mesmerised by the terrible story of the men from the Isle of Man motor trade who excitedly boarded that charter plane to attend a car show in England never to return to their successful businesses and loving families. There is but one account from a survivor, who went on to be mayor of that close-by, but far away island, about what it was like to face death on the blasted heath, to have but seconds to consider the end as the cabin goes dark and the engines lurch suddenly to the right before impact.

Unlike Munich, this story is buried as deep as the few remaining pieces of the Wayfarer's fuselage in that marshy expanse of the moor. The flame of remembrance barely flickers.

Is it, unfairly on both sets of victims, because car dealers, rather than famous footballers were the story? Who is the Winter Hill disaster story waiting for? Might one day its orbit exist completely outside of our consciousness? Unless someone like me stumbles accidentally into its dusty, unlit room.

It's fate's throw of the dice that some are remembered, some are not. We all eventually forget. Life goes on. As I clicked off the story to get on with mine last Saturday, that thought refused to leave me for a while.

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