LONDON (AP) — Bill Foulkes, a Manchester United defender who survived the 1958 Munich air crash that killed eight players on the storied team, died Monday. He was 81.

His death was announced by United, which did not give a cause.

"Bill was a giant character in the post-war history of Manchester United," executive vice chairman Ed Woodward said. "He was a very gentle man, who I was privileged to meet on several occasions, including most memorably with his teammates at the Champions League final in Moscow, 50 years after his heroics in the Munich air crash."

Foulkes played 688 times for United after making his debut in 1952. Only Ryan Giggs, Bobby Charlton and Paul Scholes have played more times for the club.

United defender Rio Ferdinand wrote on Twitter that Foulkes was a "great servant to the club."

Foulkes was one of the survivors of the Feb. 6, 1958, accident in which 23 people died and stripped the heart of the "Busby Babes." The plane carrying Matt Busby's team back from a European Cup game against Red Star Belgrade stopped to refuel in Munich but crashed on takeoff.

"I thought, 'What the hell are we doing in here, this plane, starting to bounce all over the place in snow?'" Foulkes recalled to reporters before the 50th anniversary in 2008.

Twice the pilots aborted the takeoff, but they tried again.

"I could see we were going to take off and thought, 'This is stupid, they're going to take off,'" Foulkes said. "The back end came up and I saw it came up and down again and this meant all the stuff came out of the back and hit me in the back of the head and put me in a bad way.

"I managed to get out of the plane. Someone shouted to me to get out, quick, and I got out the quickest way I thought was there, I could see the light. So I went and I got out of the plane."

Foulkes then entered the next phase of his career, trying to honor the memories of the greats, including Duncan Edwards, who died in the crash. After the crash, Foulkes was made captain of the team.

"Matt Busby made me captain and nobody refuses Matt, so that was it," Foulkes said.

A decade after the disaster, Foulkes scored one of United's goals in the European Cup semifinals against Real Madrid. United then beat Benfica in the final.

"It was in my mind, the fact we survived (Munich)," Foulkes recalled of the Wembley final. "That's what I thought: 'Now we've got to do it.'"