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How Bury St Edmunds Rugby Club found strength to recover after 18 members died in Paris air disaster





The tragedy of March 3, 1974, could have spelled the end for Bury St Edmunds Rugby Club.

On that awful day 18 club members died in what was then the world’s worst ever air disaster.

The heartbreaking loss tore the heart out of the club. Devastated families and the whole community were left reeling.

The Bury Free Press coverage of the plane crash tragedy 50 years ago that stunned the town. Picture: SuffolkNews
The Bury Free Press coverage of the plane crash tragedy 50 years ago that stunned the town. Picture: SuffolkNews

Bury had been riding high as the rugby season drew to a close. They were Suffolk champions and looking forward to a bright future.

So the 21 men who went to see England play France in Paris would have been in high spirits. But only three would ever see their home town again.

All the others, including many of the first team, were among 346 people killed on the return trip when a London-bound Turkish Airlines DC-10 crashed soon after take-off.

Bury Men’s 1st team, in black kit in memory of the crash victims, in action against Wimbledon earlier this season. Picture: Mecha Morton
Bury Men’s 1st team, in black kit in memory of the crash victims, in action against Wimbledon earlier this season. Picture: Mecha Morton

The disaster happened after a faulty cargo door blew out. Just three of the Bury party, who had stayed on in Paris, survived.

But the club that is set to mark the 50th anniversary of the crash with memorial events today is living proof of its unquenchable spirit. It not only pulled through but gradually recovered and rebuilt to become the success story it is today.

The shared pain strengthened the bond between the club and the community – and that has remained a vital part of its make-up.

Those left to pick up the pieces at the club were inspired to carry on by knowing how much their lost friends had loved rugby.

Bury Rugby Club Colts. Picture: Beanstalk Media.
Bury Rugby Club Colts. Picture: Beanstalk Media.

For a while, the players felt the need to close ranks. John Cousins, now the only surviving member of the group who went to France, says: “At first we found it difficult to get on with newcomers.

“We were in our own bubble. It was as if only us could know what it felt like. But we were playing games virtually straight away. It was quite hard but we knew they would have wanted it.”

Today many people linked to the disaster, including the victims’ families, still have close connections with the club, where a stone memorial is a constant reminder of their loved ones. This season, the men’s and women’s first teams are playing in black kit bearing the names of all those who died.

Bury Rugby Club chairman Craig Germeney outside the clubhouse. Picture: Mecha Morton
Bury Rugby Club chairman Craig Germeney outside the clubhouse. Picture: Mecha Morton

Craig Germeney, chairman of Bury RUFC, said: “The tragedy is part of the club’s fabric and history. It is something we have always got to remember and reflect on. I feel it is a massive part of Bury Rugby Club and a massive thing for rugby in general.

“Fifty years on for it still to be so poignant to the families shows how important it was to the club and the town.”

Bury Rugby Club was founded in 1925. It moved to its current home, the Haberden, 30 years later. In the 1970s it still had a prefab clubhouse which was replaced in the 1980s with a smart brick building. Further upgrades mean it now has top-notch facilities.

Bury Rugby Club women's 1st team, including (bottom right) new mother Carmel Roisin who had just returned to the squad after the birth of her daughter (also pictured). Picture: Beanstalk Media.
Bury Rugby Club women's 1st team, including (bottom right) new mother Carmel Roisin who had just returned to the squad after the birth of her daughter (also pictured). Picture: Beanstalk Media.

Among the tributes to the crash victims are the separate 1974 Suite and the Room 18 meeting room, named for the number of those who died.

The club now has 4,500 members, many are non-players who join to show their support. Enthusiasm for the game is booming and this season they have fielded more than 20 teams. The men’s 1st XV play in National League 2, the fourth tier of English rugby.

There are thriving senior and youth sections, plus the minis who start with under-6s. Tag rugby is played until the under-9s, when contact is introduced.

Bury Rugby Club Colts in action against Olney. Picture: Beanstalk Media.
Bury Rugby Club Colts in action against Olney. Picture: Beanstalk Media.

“More and more people are coming to play,” said Craig, who is in his third season as chairman, having spent three years chairing the minis.

“Before that I was just a parent… I have never played rugby. My son started playing when he was six, eight years ago, and my daughter three years later and at that point I stepped forward as a volunteer and started coaching the under-6s.”

The biggest growth has been in the number of girls getting involved. “There were seven girls in our girls’ section when I joined and now there are 60.

Some of Bury Rugby Club Minis at their presentation day. Picture: Beanstalk Media.
Some of Bury Rugby Club Minis at their presentation day. Picture: Beanstalk Media.

“There have been some really positive steps in terms of participation. Last season we managed to field two senior women’s sides and had a choice of about 50 people for our men’s 4th team.

“I think it’s partly because of the environment and also the facilities, which are some of the best around.”

Enthusiasm for watching the games is also on the rise. “Attendance has been brilliant. I think we have some of the biggest crowds in our league and the same for the women, their spectators are increasing.

“And we have hundreds on Sundays when the youth and minis play. When people come to the rugby club they find it’s an enjoyable experience.

“The biggest challenges we face are the commercial challenges and capacity. We are kind of landlocked and are due to be losing seven acres of space which we have been renting but now has been bought by a developer.

“One of the first things I did when I became chairman was to make sure we had a long-term strategy for improvement and sustainability especially commercially – including revenues through events and sponsorship.

“Since then we have managed to extend the club house and have a bigger viewing area.

“We would really like more businesses to sponsor us. The message is we are very much a community rugby club – and community rugby clubs need the support of the community, whether that’s by people attending events, or businesses supporting us.”

Craig took on the chairmanship knowing he would have two big anniversaries on his watch – 50 years since the plane crash tragedy and the club’s centenary in 2025.

“Although the 50th is a sad anniversary, we also celebrate where the club has come since,” he said. “We are trying not to make it a depressing day, but one where we celebrate all things rugby.

“Rugby is like that. Full of community and nice people. Anyone who is involved in the rugby club would want things to continue and be successful. It’s important to continue that for the generations to come.”

Plans for the centenary are still at an early stage. But one thing is likely: a book on the history of the club.

“I have good intentions of compiling a book for the 100th anniversary – 100 years of Bury Rugby Club,” he said. “We have quite a lot of stuff in our archive. This is something we would really like to do and we’re looking at how we can do it.”

To mark the 40th anniversary of the air disaster in 2014 almost 100 people took part in a sponsored cycle ride from the crash site at Ermenonville in France back to Bury.

And this September they are doing it again, with their sights set on raising money to fund a full-size all-weather pitch. As before, the proceeds will be shared with St Nicholas Hospice Care.

Organiser Austin Cornish, whose father Laurie was one of those who died in the crash, says: “I wanted to do something to remember the 40th anniversary. There were a few people I knew involved with the club who were quite keen cyclists and we came up with the idea.

“At first we thought we might get 30 or 40 people and raise about £40,000 but the event just snowballed – 95 took part and we made £157,000 after costs, which was split 50-50 between the rugby club youth project and St Nicholas Hospice Care.

“I had never been on a bike before. Lots of people who did it last time were in a similar situation. They did it because they wanted to do it for the memory of the anniversary.

“For people like me iit meant two to three months of training – it’s a bit like running a marathon, you have a programme you build up to. You need to tone your body.

I did circuit training and spin classes.”

At the end of the ride the cyclists arrived back at the Haberden to rousing cheers from hundreds of supporters waiting to greet them.

The event also inspired The Edge cycle ride, which is now an annual fund-raiser for the hospice.

“Those who took part last time said you are going to have to do it again for the 50th,” said Austin, whose co-organiser once again is Malcolm Leith, a former trustee of St Nicholas, who was already a keen cyclist. Hospice fund-raising manager George Chilvers is also helping with administration.

“A rugby tour generally is quite a fun event and this includes some serious cycling – remembering an event with an emotional side – and raising money for charity. It ticks all the boxes.

“This time with the ride in September instead of May it will give everyone the summer to get fit. Everyone is dusting off their bikes and getting them to the repair shop.

“Sixty-five have signed up so far and we’re looking to get 80 to 90. This time we are hoping to raise £250,000 – 60 percent towards an all-weather pitch for the club and 40 percent for the hospice.”

This time they are employing the company Pie, which delivers bespoke guided cycling events, to plan and co-ordinate the trip for them.

“We organised it all ourselves last time,” said Austin. “But as the whole thing grew to 95 cyclists and 22 helpers there was an awful lot of organisation, an awful lot of co-ordination and administration. As we are now out of the EU it will be even harder. Now we can justify the cost of employing them.

“We have added an extra day because we are all 10 years older and will do on average 65 miles a day. Then we will catch the overnight ferry from Holland before cycling back to Bury.”

To donate, go to justgiving.com/campaign/memorialcycleride

PROGRAMME TODAY AT THE HABERDEN

12.15pm: A memorial service led by the Rev Tiffer Robinson, of St Mary’s Church, Bury, will be held at the club memorial. There will be a chance to lay flowers in memory of the crash victims.

12.30pm: Bury St Edmunds Male Voice Choir to perform three pieces.

12.45pm: A book of respect will be open in the 1974 Suite next to the memorial.

2.55pm: The choir will sing the Bury men’s 1st team players on to the pitch for their match with Dorking. A minute’s silence will take place before kick-off.