On this date in 1937 the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, which is located adjacent to the borough of Lakehurst, New Jersey. Of the 97 people on board (36 passengers and 61 crewmen), there were 35 fatalities (13 passengers and 22 crewmen). One worker on the ground was also killed, making a total of 36 dead.
The disaster was the subject of spectacular newsreel coverage, photographs, and Herbert Morrison’s recorded radio eyewitness reports from the landing field, which were broadcast the next day. A variety of hypotheses have been put forward for both the cause of ignition and the initial fuel for the ensuing fire. The incident shattered public confidence in the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airship and marked the end of the airship era.
After opening its 1937 season by completing a single round trip passage to Rio de Janeiro in late March 1937, the Hindenburg departed from Frankfurt in Germany on the evening of May 3, 1937, the first of 10 round trips between Europe and the United States that were scheduled for its second year of commercial service. The American Airlines company had contracted with the operators of the Hindenburg to shuttle the passengers from Lakehurst to Newark for connections to airplane flights.
Except for strong headwinds that slowed its progress, the crossing of the Hindenburg was otherwise unremarkable until the airship attempted an 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 crewmen (including 21 crewman trainees) outward to the U.S., 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 airship was hours behind schedule when she passed over Boston on the morning of May 6, and her landing at Lakehurst was expected to be further delayed because of afternoon thunderstorms. Advised of the poor weather conditions at Lakehurst, Captain Max Pruss charted a course over Manhattan Island, causing a public spectacle as people rushed out into the street to catch sight of the airship.
After passing over the field at 4 p.m., Captain Pruss took passengers on a tour over the coast of New Jersey while waiting for the weather to clear. After finally being notified at 6:22 p.m. that the storms had passed, the airship headed back to Lakehurst to make its landing almost half a day late. However, as this would leave much less time than anticipated to service and prepare the airship for its scheduled departure back to Europe, the public was informed that they would not be permitted at the mooring location or be able to visit aboard the Hindenburg during its stay in port.
Around 7 p.m. local daylight saving time, at an altitude of 650 feet (200 m), the Hindenburg approached the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. This was to be a high landing, known as a flying moor, because the airship would drop its landing ropes and mooring cable at a high altitude, and then be winched down to the mooring mast. This type of landing maneuver would reduce the number of ground crewmen, but would require more time.
At 7:09 the airship made a sharp full speed right turn to the west around the landing field because the ground crew was not ready. At 11 minutes past, it turned back toward the landing field and valved gas. All engines idled ahead and the airship began to slow. Captain Pruss ordered all engines full astern at 7:14 while at an altitude of 394 ft (120 m), to try to brake the airship.
7:17: The wind shifted direction to southwest, and Captain Pruss ordered a second sharp turn towards starboard
7:18: As the final turn progressed, Pruss ordered 300, 300, and 500 kg of water ballast in successive drops because the airship was stern-heavy. Six men (three of whom were killed in the accident) were also sent to the bow to trim the airship.
7:21: At altitude 295 feet (90 m), the mooring lines were dropped from the bow, the starboard line being dropped first, followed by the port line. The port line was overtightened as it was connected to the post of the ground winch. The starboard line had still not been connected. A light rain began to fall as the ground crew grabbed the mooring lines.
At 7:25 p.m., one witness saw the fabric ahead of the upper fin flutter as if gas were leaking. Witnesses also reported seeing blue discharges — possibly static electricity, or St Elmo’s Fire — moments before the fire on top and in the back of the ship near the point where the flames first appeared. Several other eyewitness testimonies suggest that the first flame appeared on the port side just ahead of the port fin, and was followed by flames which burned on top. Commander Rosendahl testified to the flames being “mushroom-shaped”. One witness on the starboard side reported a fire beginning lower and behind the rudder on that side. On board, people heard a .muffled explosion and those in the front of the ship felt a shock as the port trail rope overtightened; the officers in the control car initially thought the shock was due to a broken rope
At 7:25 p.m local time, the Hindenburg caught fire and quickly became engulfed in flame. Where the fire started is unknown; several witnesses on the port side saw yellow-red flames first jump forward of the top fin. Other witnesses on the port side noted the fire actually began just ahead of the horizontal port fin, only then followed by flames in front of the upper fin. One, with views of the starboard side, saw flames beginning lower and farther aft, near cell 1. Helmsman Helmut Lau, who was stationed in the lower fin, testified seeing a bright reflection on the front bulkhead of gas cell 4, which disappeared by the heat. As other gas cells started to catch fire, the fire spread more to the starboard side. Although there were five newsreel cameramen and at least one spectator known to be filming the landing, no camera was rolling when the fire started.
Wherever they started, the flames quickly spread forward. Instantly, a water tank and a fuel tank burst out of the hull due to the shock of the blast. This shock also caused a crack behind the passenger decks, and the rear of the structure imploded. Buoyancy was lost on the stern of the ship, and the bow lurched upwards while the ship’s back broke; the falling stern stayed in trim.
As the tail of the Hindenburg crashed into the ground, a burst of flame came out of the nose, killing nine of the 12 crew members in the bow. There was still gas in the bow section of the ship, so it continued to point upward as the stern collapsed down. The crack behind the passenger decks collapsed inward, causing the gas cell to explode. The scarlet lettering “Hindenburg” was erased by flames while the airship’s bow descended. The airship’s gondola wheel touched the ground, causing the bow to bounce up slightly as one final gas cell burned away. At this point, most of the fabric on the hull had also burned away and the bow finally crashed to the ground. Although the hydrogen had finished burning, the Hindenburg’s diesel fuel burned for several more hours.
The time that it took for the airship to be destroyed has been disputed. Some observers believed that it took 34 seconds, others said that it took 32 or 37 seconds. Since none of the newsreel cameras was filming the airship when the fire started, the time of the start can only be estimated from various eyewitness accounts. One careful analysis of the flame spread by Addison Bain of NASA gives the flame front spread rate across the fabric skin as about 49 ft/s (15 m/s), which would have resulted in a total destruction time of about 16 seconds (245m / 15 m/s=16.3 s). Some of the duralumin framework of the airship was salvaged and shipped back to Germany, where it was recycled and used in the construction of military aircraft for the Luftwaffe. So were the frames of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin and LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II when both were scrapped in 1940.
The disaster is well recorded due to the significant extent of newsreel coverage and photographs, as well as Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness radio report for station WLS in Chicago, which was broadcast the next day. Heavy publicity about the first transatlantic passenger flight of the year by Zeppelin to the United States attracted a large number of journalists to the landing.
Morrison’s broadcast remains one of the most famous in history. Parts of it were later dubbed on to newsreel footage, giving the impression that the words and film were recorded together. His plaintive “Oh, the humanity!” has been widely used in popular culture. Part of the poignancy of his commentary is due to its being recorded at a slightly slower speed, so that when it is played back at normal speed, it seems to have a faster delivery and higher pitch. When corrected, his account is less frantic sounding, though still impassioned.
It’s practically standing still now they’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and (uh) they’ve been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It’s starting to rain again; it’s… the rain had (uh) slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it (uh) just enough to keep it from…It’s burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. [unintelligible] its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it—I can’t even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it’s just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t. Listen, folks; I… I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.
The spectacular film footage and Morrison’s passionate reporting shattered public and industry faith in airships and marked the end of the giant passenger-carrying airships. Also contributing to the Zeppelins’ downfall was the arrival of international passenger air travel and Pan American Airlines. Heavier-than-air aircraft regularly crossed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans much faster than the 130 km/h (80 mph) speed of the Hindenburg. The one advantage that the Hindenburg had over such aircraft was the comfort that she afforded her passengers, much like that of an ocean liner.
There had been a series of other airship accidents, prior to the Hindenburg fire; many were caused by bad weather. The Graf Zeppelin had flown safely for more than 1.6 million kilometers (1.0 million miles), including the first circumnavigation of the globe by an airship. The Zeppelin company’s promotions had prominently featured the fact that no passenger had been injured on any of its airships.
Despite the huge fire, many of the aircrewmen and passengers survived. Of the 36 passengers and 61 crewmen, 13 passengers and 22 aircrewmen died. Also killed was one ground crewman, the civilian linesman Allen Hagaman. Ten passengers and 16 crewmen died in the crash or in the fire (the majority of the victims were burnt to death, while others died jumping from the airship at an excessive height, or as a consequence of smoke inhalation or falling debris), while six other crewmembers, three passengers and Allen Hagaman died in the following hours or days, mostly as a consequence of the burns.
The majority of the crewmen who died were up inside the ship’s hull, where they either did not have a clear escape route or else were close to the bow of the ship, which hung burning in the air too long for most of them to escape the fire. Most of the passengers who died were trapped in the starboard side of the passenger deck. Not only was the wind blowing the fire toward the starboard side, but the ship also rolled slightly to starboard as it settled to the ground, with much of the upper hull on that part of the ship collapsing outboard of the starboard observation windows, thus cutting off the escape of many of the passengers on that side. To make matters worse, the sliding door leading from the starboard passenger area to the central foyer and the gangway stairs (through which rescuers led a number of passengers to safety) jammed shut during the crash, further trapping those passengers on the starboard side. Nonetheless, some did manage to escape from the starboard passenger decks. By contrast, all but a few of the passengers on the port side of the ship survived the fire, with some of them escaping virtually unscathed. Although the most famous of airship disasters, it was not the worst. Just over twice as many perished (73 of 76 on board) when the helium-filled U.S. Navy scout airship USS Akron crashed at sea off the New Jersey coast four years earlier on April 4, 1933.
Some of the survivors were saved by luck. Werner Franz, the 14 year-old cabin boy, was initially dazed by the realization that the ship was on fire. As he stood near the officer’s mess where he had been putting away dishes moments before, a water tank above him burst open, and he was suddenly soaked to the skin. Not only did this snap him back to his senses, as he later told interviewers, but it also put out the fire around him. He then made his way to a nearby hatch through which the kitchen had been provisioned before the flight, and dropped through it just as the forward part of the ship was briefly rebounding into the air. He began to run toward the starboard side, but stopped and turned around and ran the other way, because the flames were being pushed by the wind in that same direction. He made it clear of the wreck with no injuries, and lived to be the last surviving crew member when he died at age 92 on August 13, 2014 The last surviving passenger is Werner G. Doehner (b. 1928), a retired electrical engineer now living in Parachute, Colorado, who was an eight-year-old child traveling with his parents, brother, and sister at the time of the accident.
When the control car crashed on the ground, most of the officers had leapt through the windows, but became separated. First Officer Captain Albert Sammt found Captain Max Pruss trying to re-enter the wreckage to look for survivors. Pruss’s face was badly burned, and he required months of hospitalization and reconstructive surgery, but he survived. Captain Ernst Lehmann escaped the crash with burns to his head and arms and severe burns across most of his back. Though his burns did not seem quite as severe as those of Pruss, he died at a nearby hospital the next day.
When passenger Joseph Späh, a vaudeville comic acrobat, saw the first sign of trouble he smashed the window with his movie camera, with which he had been filming the landing (the film survived the disaster). As the ship neared the ground he lowered himself out the window and hung onto the window ledge, letting go when the ship was perhaps 20 feet above the ground. His acrobat’s instincts kicked in, and Späh kept his feet under him and attempted to do a safety roll when he landed. He injured his ankle nonetheless, and was dazedly crawling away when a member of the ground crew came up, slung the diminutive Späh under one arm, and ran him clear of the fire.
Of the 12 crewmen in the bow of the airship, only three survived. Four of these 12 men were standing on the mooring shelf, a platform up at the very tip of the bow from which the forwardmost landing ropes and the steel mooring cable were released to the ground crew, and which was directly at the forward end of the axial walkway and just ahead of gas cell #16. The rest were standing either along the lower keel walkway ahead of the control car, or else on platforms beside the stairway leading up the curve of the bow to the mooring shelf. During the fire the bow hung in the air at roughly a 45-degree angle and flames shot forward through the axial walkway, bursting through the bow (and the bow gas cells) like a blowtorch. The three men from the forward section who survived (elevatorman Kurt Bauer, cook Alfred Grözinger, and electrician Josef Leibrecht) were those furthest aft of the bow, and two of them (Bauer and Grözinger) happened to be standing near two large triangular air vents, through which cool air was being drawn by the fire. Neither of these men sustained more than superficial burns. Most of the men standing along the bow stairway either fell aft into the fire, or tried to leap from the ship when it was still too high in the air. Three of the four men standing on the mooring shelf inside the very tip of the bow were actually taken from the wreck alive, though one (Erich Spehl, a rigger) died shortly afterward in the Air Station’s infirmary, and the other two (helmsman Alfred Bernhard and apprentice elevatorman Ludwig Felber) were reported by newspapers to have initially survived the fire, and then to subsequently have died at area hospitals during the night or early the following morning.
The four crewmen in the tail fin all survived. They were closest to the origin of the fire but sheltered by the structure of the lower fin. They escaped by climbing out the fin’s access hatch when the tail hit the ground.
If you want more on the disaster, this is a good documentary including interviews with survivors:
The following blog is an excellent resource for primary documents and analysis of the Hindenburg.
There’s a page devoted to the final menus which I was delighted to find:
I’d have liked to have duplicated my idea for the Titanic (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/r-m-s-titanic-menus/ ) and given the final menu, but the delay in landing meant that the galley on board was scrambling for extra meals on 6 May and there is nothing printed. However the last “official” lunch and dinner menus for 5 May are available.
Wednesday, May 5th, 1937Mittagessen (Lunch)
Kraftbrühe Germinal (Consommé Germinal)
Junter Lammbraten (Roast Lamb
mit Prinzessbohnen with Princess Beans)
Bäckerinkartoffel (Baker’s Potatoes)
Kopfsalat (Lettuce Salad)
Diplomaten-Crème (Diplomat Crème)
Tapiokasuppe (Tapioca Soup
mit Gemüsestreifen with Julienne Vegetables)
Heilbuttschnitte gekocht (Boiled Halibut)
Mouseline Tunke (Mousseline Sauce)
Salzkartoffel (Salted Potatoes)
Brüssler Mastpoularde (Capon à la Brussels
mit Gemüse umlegt with Mixed Vegetables)
Gemischte Käseplatte (Assorted Cheese Platter)
Pumpernickel-Knäckebrot (Pumpernickel Crisp Bread)
Westfälisches Schwarzbrot (Westfalian Dark Rye Bread)
None of it looks out of the ordinary to me, but I am sure the chef was good. I’ve selected consommé Germinal from the lunch menu as my feature recipe. It’s very easy to make. My recipe for beef consommé is in my HINTS section (button upper left). You can find a recipe for quenelles here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/ambrose-bierce/ — just substitute chicken for veal. Escoffier’s instructions are as follows:
Consommé flavoured with tarragon and garnished with little quenelles of chicken forcemeat flavoured with chervil and tarragon, petits pois, green beans cut into diamonds and asparagus tips.