On May 6th 1937, the German airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built, exploded as it arrived in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty-six people died in the fiery accident that has since become iconic, in part because of the live radio broadcast of the disaster.
The dirigible was built to be the fastest, largest and most luxurious flying vessel of its time. It was more than 800 feet long, had a range of 8,000 miles, could carry 97 passengers and had a state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz engine. It was filled with 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen, even though helium was known to be far safer, because it made the flying ship more manoeuvrable.
After opening its 1937 season by completing a single round trip passage to Rio de Janeiro in late March, the Hindenburg departed from Frankfurt on the evening of May 3 on the first of its ten round trips between Europe and the United States scheduled for its second year of commercial service. The United States’ American Airlines, which had contracted with the operators of the Hindenburg, was prepared to shuttle fliers from Lakehurst to Newark for connections to airplane flights.
Except for strong headwinds which slowed its passage, the Hindenburg’s crossing was otherwise unremarkable until the airship’s attempted early evening landing at Lakehurst three days later on May 6. Although carrying only half its full capacity of passengers (36 of 70) and 61 crew members (including 21 training crew members), the Hindenburg’s return flight was fully booked with many of those passengers planning to attend the festivities for the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in London the following week.
The Hindenburg had made 10 successful ocean crossings the year before and was held up by Germany’s Nazi government as a symbol of national pride. Flying at a speed of 85 miles per hour, the Hindenburg was scheduled to arrive in New Jersey at 5 a.m. on May 6. However, weather conditions and strong headwinds pushed the arrival back to the late afternoon, and then rain further delayed the docking at Lakehurst. When the dirigible was finally cleared to dock, Captain Max Pruss brought the ship in too fast and had to order a reverse engine thrust. At 7:20 p.m., a gas leak was noticed. Within minutes, the tail blew up, sending flames hundreds of feet in the air and as far down as the ground below.
A chain reaction caused the entire vessel to burn instantly. The nearly 1,000 spectators awaiting the Hindenburg‘s arrival felt the heat from a mile away. Some on the blimp attempted to jump for the landing cables at the docking station but most died when they missed. Others waited to jump until the blimp was closer to the ground as it fell. Those who were not critically injured from burns often suffered broken bones from the jump. Fifty-six people managed to survive.
Radio announcer Herb Morrison, who came to Lakehurst to record a routine voice-over for an NBC newsreel, immortalised the Hindenburg disaster in a famous on-the-scene description in which he emotionally declared, “Oh, the humanity!” The recording of Morrison’s commentary was immediately flown to New York, where it was aired as part of America’s first coast-to-coast radio news broadcast. Lighter-than-air passenger travel rapidly fell out of favour after the Hindenburg disaster, and no rigid airships survived World War II.
- The long, great history of zeppelins (news.cnet.com)
- Surviving the Hindenburg Disaster: the Amazing Escape of Werner Franz (surviving-history.blogspot.com)