THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937 – Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey)
The Official Story
THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937)
The Hindenburg disaster occurred on May 6, 1937, in Manchester Township, New Jersey, United States. 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. There were 35 fatalities (13 passengers and 22 crewmen) from the 97 people on board (36 passengers and 61 crewmen), and an additional fatality on the ground.
The disaster was the subject of 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 event shattered public confidence in the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airship and marked the abrupt end of the airship era.
There were a total 35 deaths out of 97 people on the airship, including 13 of the 36 passengers and 22 of the 61 crew; most survivors were severely burned. Among the killed was also 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 burned to death, while others died jumping from the airship at an excessive height, or as a consequence of either smoke inhalation or falling debris. Six other crew members, three passengers, and Allen Hagaman died in the following hours or days, mostly as a result 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 were close to the bow of the ship, which hung burning in the air for too long for most of them to escape death. Most of the crew in the bow died in the fire, although at least one was filmed falling from the bow to his death. 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 best remembered airship disaster, it was not the worst. Just over twice as many (73 of 76 on board) had perished 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.
Werner Franz, the 14-year-old cabin boy, was initially dazed on realizing the ship was on fire but when a water tank above him burst open, putting out the fire around him, he was spurred to action. He made his way to a nearby hatch 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 wind was pushing the flames in that direction. He escaped without injury, and was the last surviving crew member when he died in 2014. The last survivor, Werner G. Doehner, died November 8, 2019. At the time of the disaster, Doehner was eight years old and vacationing with family. He recalled later that his mother threw him and his brother out of the ship and jumped after them; they survived but Doehner’s father and sister were killed.
When the control car crashed onto the ground, most of the officers 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. 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 afterwards 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.
Hydrogen fires are less destructive to immediate surroundings than gasoline explosions because of the buoyancy of diatomic hydrogen, which causes heat of combustion to be released upwards more than circumferentially as the leaked mass ascends in the atmosphere; hydrogen fires are more survivable than fires of gasoline or wood. The hydrogen in the Hindenburg burned out within about 90 seconds.