2017-05-10 / Features

Remembering The Hindenburg 80 Years Later

BY JASON D. ANTOS

A rare amateur photograph showing the Hindenburg flying over Queens in the summer of 1936. This image was taken from Foch Boulevard and Springfield Boulevard.Photo Jason Antos Collection A rare amateur photograph showing the Hindenburg flying over Queens in the summer of 1936. This image was taken from Foch Boulevard and Springfield Boulevard.Photo Jason Antos Collection Radio journalist and broadcaster Herbert Morrison had been given a dream assignment by his station WLS in Chicago. His story was to cover the arrival of the German luxury airship Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey for a live broadcast on May 6, 1937. He was accompanied by cameraman Charlie Nehlsen, and together they set out to the U.S. Naval airfield for the late afternoon arrival. It was to be an exciting, yet routine, landing. The largest passenger airship of its time, the Hindenburg had made 62 trans-Atlantic trips. Now in its second season of commercial service, the zeppelin had already made one trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in late March of that year. The Hindenburg departed from Frankfurt, Germany, on the evening of May 3 on the first of 10 round trips between Europe and the United States. There would be nothing to prepare Morrison for what would happen as the ship sailed smoothly over Lakehurst at the end of its three-day voyage. As the Hindenburg neared the mooring mast, which would help anchor it to the ground so that passengers could disembark, the tail section began to sink ever so slightly and the engines began to slow down. Dozens of navy sailors grabbed ropes dropped from the nose of the airship to the runway below in order to help guide it to the mooring mast.

The Hindenburg was also carrying something just as fragile as its passengers and experienced crew. The zeppelin was filled with more than 7,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, which helped the great blimp lift off the ground with ease.

Although carrying only half its full capacity of passengers, the Hindenburg was fully booked for its return flight. Many of the passengers with tickets to Germany were planning to attend the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in London the following week.

The Hindenburg 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 thunderstorms earlier that afternoon. Advised of the poor weather conditions at Lakehurst, the ship’s captain, Max Pruss, charted a course over Midtown Manhattan, causing a public spectacle as people rushed out of their offices and into the street to catch sight of the airship. At Ebbets Field the Brooklyn Dodgers stopped their ballgame for a moment as the Hindenburg sailed right over the stadium.

At around 7:20 p.m., Morrison began his broadcast standing next to a large group of people consisting mostly of family members of the passengers on board. Together they all watched the 800-foot long Hindenburg hover majestically above the airfield only 300 feet off the ground.

“The ship is standing still now they've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship,” Morrison told his radio audience.

The motors of the ship began to idle and it would be just another five minutes and the trip would be all over and the passengers would begin disembarking safely. Just then, there was a loud boom, which made everyone on the ground freeze. It became very silent and even Morrison who was in the middle of describing how the landing procedure is executed by the ground crew stopped mid-sentence. Before he could continue there came a second, louder boom and a ball of light as bright as the sun began to rise out from the Hindenburg’s tail section.

“It’s burst into flames! 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 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!”

Morrison was communicating to listeners at home what he and more than 100 people were witnessing. The Hindenburg, for reasons still debated 80 years later, had exploded. Void of hydrogen in the tail section due to the initial explosion, the zeppelin began to descend to the runway below. The tail section took only a few seconds to fall the 300 feet, and it hit the ground with a terrible crash. The bow section, still filled with hydrogen, remained aloft and was now pointing like a finger straight up skyward. The flames shot through the Hindenburg’s hull and exploded out of the tip of the nose of the ship. Then, the hydrogen tanks in the bow exploded and the fireball began to consume the ship, which now began to fall to earth as if an invisible wire keeping it airborne had suddenly been clipped.

Morrison was hysterical as the realization that the fire, fed by a lethal combination of hydrogen and diesel fuel, was now making its way toward the passenger lounge located on the underbelly of the ship where the majority of the passengers had congregated to observe the landing while waving to spectators down below from the observation window.

“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 can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest it’s just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breath and talk and the screaming. I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. 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.”

Morrison stopped his broadcast and with tears in his eyes made a line for a nearby hangar leaving his cameraman behind to record the carnage. As Morrison regained his composure, he missed what happened next. Out of the burning wreckage of the Hindenburg, with flames reaching hundreds of feet into the sky and dozens of smaller secondary explosions still occurring from the smoldering bowels of the ship, came forth a living passenger. Then another and another and yet even another.

Of the 97 passengers and crew, 62 persons miraculously survived. One naval crewman on the ground was killed by falling wreckage. Morrison soon ended his broadcast and ran toward the burning remains of the mighty zeppelin and helped in the rescue effort.

Today, a monument to those who perished onboard the Hindenburg sits in the footprints of the crash site at the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst.

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