The Official Story
HINDENBURG DISASTER NEWS COVERAGE
The disaster was well-documented. Heavy publicity about the first transatlantic passenger flight of the year by Zeppelin to the United States had attracted a large number of journalists to the landing. Thus many news crews were on-site at the time of the airship exploding, and so there was a significant amount of newsreel coverage and photographs, as well as Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness report for radio station WLS in Chicago, a report that was broadcast the next day.
Parts of Morrison’s broadcast were later dubbed onto newsreel footage. That gave the impression that the words and film were recorded together, but that was not the case.
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 between it. This is terrible; this is one of the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it’s… [unintelligible] its flames… Crashing, oh! oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. There’s smoke, and there’s 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, a 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.
— Herbert Morrison, Transcription of WLS radio broadcast describing the Hindenburg disaster.
The newsreel footage was shot by four newsreel camera teams:
Hearst News of the Day
Al Gold of Fox Movietone News later received a Presidential Citation for his work. One of the most widely circulated photographs of the disaster (see photo at top of article), showing the airship crashing with the mooring mast in the foreground, was photographed by Sam Shere of International News Photos. When the fire started he did not have the time to put the camera to his eye and shot the photo “from the hip”. Murray Becker of Associated Press photographed the fire engulfing the airship while it was still on even keel using his 4 x 5 Speed Graphic camera. His next photograph (see right), shows flames bursting out of the nose as the bow telescoped upwards. In addition to professional photographers, spectators also photographed the crash. They were stationed in the spectators’ area near Hangar No. 1, and had a side-rear view of the airship. Customs broker Arthur Cofod Jr. and 16 year-old Foo Chu both had Leica cameras with high-speed film, allowing them to take a larger number of photographs than the press photographers. Nine of Cofod’s photographs were printed in Life magazine, while Chu’s photographs were shown in the New York Daily News.
The newsreels and photographs, along with 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 downfall of Zeppelins was the arrival of international passenger air travel and Pan American Airlines. Heavier-than-air aircraft regularly crossed the Atlantic and Pacific 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.
In contrast to the media coverage in the United States, media coverage of the disaster in Germany was more subdued. Although some photographs of the disaster were published in newspapers, the newsreel footage was not released until after World War II. Additionally, German victims were memorialized in a similar manner to fallen war heroes, and grassroots movements to fund zeppelin construction (as happened after the 1908 crash of the LZ 4) were expressly forbidden by the Nazi government.
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.
Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel Footage
Newsreel footage of the 6 May 1937 Hindenburg disaster, where the zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg crashed and burned down, was filmed by several companies.
The film is frequently shown with narration, by WLS (AM) announcer Herbert Morrison, who was narrating a field recording on to an acetate disc, and was present to watch the zeppelin’s arrival. Morrison’s commentary was recorded by engineer Charles Nehlsen, but not broadcast until the next day on May 7, 1937, the first time that recordings of a news event were ever broadcast. In 2002, the audio recording was selected for preservation into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. It has since been combined with the separately filmed newsreel footage. Most of the original newsreels have their own narration, and many composite edits have been made for documentaries dubbed with Morrison’s commentary.
Four newsreel teams were in attendance at the time of the disaster. They were positioned close to each other and adjacent to the mooring mast for the airship. As a result, the newsreels do not show the mooring mast for the airship to be moored (other mooring masts appear in the background in many of the reels), unlike many of the press photographs which were taken farther away which show the mast as well as two of the newsreel cameramen with their cameras mounted atop of newsreel trucks. None of the newsreels captured the initial signs of disaster as the cameras had momentarily stopped filming after the ground crew caught the landing ropes (the fire started approximately four minutes after the first starboard rope was dropped at 7:21). At least one amateur film, taken by Harold N. Schenck, is known to exist, showing a side view of the stern on fire and the tail crashing to the ground.
In 1997, the original reels were selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”