THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937 – Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey)
The Official Story
(LZ 129 Hindenburg Commander)
Max Pruss (13 September 1891 – 28 November 1960) was the commanding Captain of the zeppelin, LZ 129 Hindenburg, on its last voyage and a surviving crew member of the disaster.
During his career, he flew 171 times over the Atlantic. The final flight of the Hindenburg was May 3–6, 1937, and it was Pruss’ first flight as commanding Captain of the Hindenburg. According to Airships.net he was a member of the NSDAP (Nazi Party).
Pruss was commander of the airship during the Hindenburg disaster of 6 May 1937. This was his first time commanding a trip to Lakehurst. Pruss and several crew members rode the Hindenburg down to the ground as it burned, then ordered everybody out. He carried radio operator Willy Speck out of the wreckage, then looked for survivors until rescuers were forced to restrain him. Pruss, however, suffered extensive burns and had to be taken out by ambulance to Paul Kimball Hospital in Lakewood. The burns were so extensive that he was given last rites, but although his face was disfigured for the rest of his life, his condition improved over the next few months. Pruss was unable to testify at investigative committees, but officially he was not held responsible.
Pruss, along with other airship crewmen, maintained that the disaster was caused by sabotage, and dismissed the possibility that it was sparked by lightning or static electricity. Although Hugo Eckener did not rule out other causes, he criticized Pruss’ decision to carry out the landing in poor weather conditions, expressing his belief that sharp turns ordered by Pruss during the landing approach may have caused gas to leak, which could have been ignited by static electricity. Pruss insisted that such turns were normal procedure, and that the stern heaviness experienced during the approach was normal due to rainwater being displaced at the tail. However, it has been suggested that Pruss maintained his belief of sabotage because of guilt or to maintain the credibility of himself and the airship business.