One of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the 20th century was the Hindenburg disaster which occurred as the airship burst into flames as it was being prepared for landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. There were 97 people on board at the time. Miraculously, 62 people survived. Of those who lost their lives, 13 were passengers and 22 were members of the crew, a total of 35 lives lost. An additional grounds worker was also killed in the aftermath.
Hindenburg Airship - Wikimedia
An Eyewitness Account
A famous eyewitness account still exists today. Reporter Herbert Morrison from a Chicago radio station was at the airfield to describe the landing of the Hindenburg, and perhaps to interview some of the passengers as they exited the airship. Instead, his description of the disaster went over the airwaves as he struggled to keep calm at the horrors that were happening before his eyes. His account was broadcast the next day.
Dr. Hugo Eckener
Dr. Hugo Eckener, the creator of the Hindenburg airship was in Austria at the time, and came quickly to the United States to learn the truth about the disaster to his creation. During the previous year, the Hindenburg had crossed the Atlantic safely with Dr. Eckener at the helm. Its safety record was impeccable. Eckener’s first inclination was that sabotage must have been involved.
Hindenburg Disaster - Wikimedia
Facts About the Voyage
On its fateful voyage, the Hindenburg took 2 ½ days to reach the United States from Frankfurt, Germany. It was to be the first of ten round trips between Europe and the United States in the coming year. The weather was stormy and visibility was reduced, causing some rerouting to avoid the bad weather as the airship came closer to New Jersey. Captain Max Pruss was the Commander in charge on the plane; his First Officer was Captain Albert Sammt. An unexpected flight over Manhattan thrilled the passengers as it was the highlight of the trip. It was determined that the weather had cleared near Lakehurst and Captain Pruss made the decision to bring the Hindenburg in, since they were already ten hours late, and scheduling the return trip was being compromised. Passengers with return tickets were planning to attend the coronation of King George VI in London on the following week. Another small storm, which nobody had noticed, was present as the ship started its descent.
It took only 34 seconds to destroy the ship and the lives of 36 people. It occurred when the ship was only 400-500 feet from the ground. A member of the Navy ground crew was the only one who noticed that a wavy fluttering was occurring on the top side of the ship, as though gas was rising and escaping. Then, the entire back end of the Hindenburg went up in flames. The wreckage burned for 3 hours.
An Investigation Ensues
An investigation followed with eyewitness testimony being given. Colonel South Trimble was in charge of the inquiry. Commander Charles Rosendahl, the Commander at Lakehurst, was asked to testify. He was deeply traumatized. He had declared that conditions were suitable for landing. He called the ship in. He felt that there had to have been a saboteur. A notification came from the German Embassy that a letter had arrived threatening sabotage to the Hindenburg.
When Dr. Eckener arrived in Lakehurst, Commander Rosendahl and his wife invited him to stay at their home. Eckener would also aid in the investigation, and believed, along with Rosendahl, that sabotage was a possibility.
Hindenburg Crew after the Disaster - Wikimedia
A Possible Saboteur
One passenger was looked at very closely. He was Joseph Spah. He had brought his German Shepherd with him and made a number of visits to an off-limits area, a freight room, in order to feed his dog. There was no evidence that Spah might have sabotaged the airship. When the disaster occurred, Spah smashed a window with his movie camera and was able to leave the airship, although he broke his ankle when he had to leap 20 feet. He had been filming the landing and his film survived the catastrophe.
Testimony of Witnesses
A crew member, Captain Ernest Lehmann, gave witness from his hospital bed. He was able to talk in spite of his wounds. He felt that an infernal machine (a device such as a bomb) was the cause of the disaster. He also subscribed to the sabotage theory. Captain Lehmann died the next day.
Captain Albert Sammt, the First Officer, also testified from his hospital bed. He claimed that the ship was heavy in the rear and light in the bow. They had to equalize the weight. When the wind shifted they had to make an adjustment. It caused a sharp turn. They were still heavy in the stern and had to drop 300 kilos of water to lighten the load.
Dr. Eckener Testifies
Dr. Eckener’s testimony was important. It could incriminate the crew and his colleagues. He told about a meeting he had with the U.S. in 1929. When he was designing the Hindenburg, it was filled with 7 million cubic feet of highly combustible hydrogen gas. He preferred to use helium, a less flammable gas than hydrogen. However, the United States, which had a monopoly on the world supply of helium, forbade its export. It is far more expensive than hydrogen. He therefore chose to proceed with hydrogen.
Dr. Eckener Seeks the Truth
Dr. Eckener spoke with Captain Sammt at the hospital and surmised that an abnormal buildup of gas in the airship must have been ignited by some spark; not an electrical spark, but a static spark. He believed that a mechanical failure coupled with the Captain’s pressure to keep the schedule contributed to compromising the safety of the airship. He no longer subscribed to a theory of sabotage.
Hindenburg Gondola and Moorings - Wikimedia
The Last Two Survivors
Werner Franz was a 14-year-old cabin boy on the Hindenburg. He was the last surviving crew member until his death in 2014. He was in the kitchen when he realized that the ship was on fire. A water tank exploded, soaking him and the surrounding area. He was able to escape and ran away from the ship, but realized that the flames were being carried that way, and changed his direction away from the wreckage. He survived without any injuries.
The one surviving passenger at this time is Werner Doehner who was eight years old when he traveled on the Hindenburg to the United States with his parents and a brother and sister. He recalled that his grandmother had given him a toy car which he played with on the airship. Because it gave off sparks, the steward had to take the toy car away from Werner because of the danger of it igniting the hydrogen. He promised to return Werner’s toy at the end of the trip. Werner’s father and sister died, but his mother threw him and his brother out of a window and the three of them survived.
The End of the Airship Era
The Hindenburg disaster signaled the end of the airship era. It was no longer regarded as a safe way to travel. As we know, strides have been made in the aircraft industry which allow us to travel the world in commercial planes that have built-in safety factors.