THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937 – Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey)
(Radio Journalist who reported the Hindenburg Disaster)
The Official Story
(Radio Journalist who reported
the Hindenburg Disaster)
Herbert Oglevee Morrison (May 14, 1905 – January 10, 1989) was an American radio journalist best known for his dramatic report of the Hindenburg disaster, a catastrophic fire that destroyed the LZ 129 Hindenburg zeppelin on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people.
Morrison was born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania on May 14, 1905, to Walter Lindsay Morrison and Bertha Frances Oglevee Morrison. Walter Lindsay left the family early and Morrison moved with his mother and older brother to Scottdale, Pennsylvania when he was a young boy. The home he grew up in belonged to his grandmother, who supported the family by taking in boarders. The home still stands today at 316 Market Street in Scottdale, Pennsylvania.
The Hindenburg disaster
Morrison and engineer Charlie Nehlsen had been assigned by station WLS in Chicago to cover the arrival of the Hindenburg in New Jersey for delayed broadcast.
Radio network policy in those days forbade the use of any other recorded material than that used for sound effects, and Morrison and Nehlsen had no facilities for live broadcast. Even so, the results still became the prototype for news broadcasting in the war years that followed. The event had no effect on this policy, and recordings were not regularly used until after the end of World War II.
Morrison’s description began routinely, but changed instantly as the airship burst into flames:
It’s starting to rain again; it’s… the rain had (oh) 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! It’s burst into flame, and it’s falling! It’s crashing! Watch it! Watch it, folks! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s burning and it’s crashing! It’s crashing, terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning, bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast and all the folks between — oh, this is terrible; this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it’s… [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 flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, all the passengers. screaming around here. I told you; it – I came to 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, lady, 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, I… 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.
— Herbert Morrison, Transcription of WLS radio broadcast describing the Hindenburg disaster.
Morrison and Nehlsen continued their work, reporting at length on the rescue efforts and interviewing survivors, with several pauses while Morrison composed himself. A small and dashing-looking man, Morrison wore a blue serge suit and a topcoat. Morrison mistakenly thought there were 106 people aboard the flight, when in reality there were 97 aboard. Thirty-five people died in addition to one fatality on the ground. The 16-inch green lacquer disk recordings were rushed back to Chicago by airplane and broadcast in full later that night. Portions were rebroadcast nationally by the NBC Radio network the next day. It was the first time that recordings of a news event were ever broadcast, and also the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast. Morrison’s quick professional response and accurate description combined with his own emotional reaction have made the recordings a classic of audio history.
Several people believe that this classic recording is not an accurate reflection of Morrison’s speech. These people theorize that Nehlsen’s Presto 6D recorder ran about 3% slow, causing Morrison’s voice to sound different from how it actually was, and that Morrison’s normal speaking and radio announcer voice was actually quite deep as evidenced by other recordings of his voice from the same era.
One of these people is audio historian Michael Biel, formerly of Morehead State University, who studied the original recordings and analyzed Nehlsen’s vital contribution as an engineer as well as the playback speed issue:
I have closely examined the original discs and photographed the grooves at the point of the explosion. You can see several deep digs in the lacquer before the groove disappears. Then almost immediately there is a faint groove for about two revolutions while Charlie Nehlsen gently lowered the cutting head back to the disc. Fortunately the cutting stylus never cut through the lacquer to the aluminum base. If that had happened the most dramatic part of the recording would not have been made because the stylus would have been ruined. The digs and the bouncing off of the cutting head were caused by the shock wave of the explosion which reached the machine just after Morrison said “It burst into flames…” I and several others believe that the originals were recorded slightly slow, and that all replays have been at too fast a speed. Comparison with the now two other known contemporary recordings of Morrison demonstrate this conclusion.
Morrison’s description has been dubbed onto the newsreel film of the crash, giving the impression of a modern television-style broadcast. However, at the time, newsreels were separately narrated in a studio, and Morrison’s words were not heard in theaters.
The availability of newsreel films, photographs and Morrison’s description was a result of heavy promotion of the arrival by the Zeppelin Company, making the crash a media event and raising its importance far beyond other disasters, less well-reported and documented.
Morrison’s usual broadcast work was as an announcer on live musical programs, but his earlier successful reporting of Midwestern floods from an airplane led to his assignment at Lakehurst that day.
Morrison later served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and was the first news director at WTAE-TV, the ABC television affiliate in Pittsburgh. He also ran for Congress three times as a Pennsylvania Republican. Prior to retirement he served as a technical adviser for the 1975 film The Hindenburg and developed a radio and television section at West Virginia University.