97 people were on board when the Hindenburg airship left Germany on May 3, 1937, and it didn’t land until the next day. There were news cameras on hand because this was the first transatlantic Zeppelin passenger flight in that year to land in the United States.
Over three days, the ship flew thousands of miles across open water without a hitch. Then, just minutes before the trip was supposed to end, the ship burst into flames.
When it caught fire and crashed as it was landing in New Jersey at 7:25 p.m. on May 6, 1937, the whole thing was caught on film. The audio of the accident was also recorded.
It took 36 lives in the end: 22 crew members and 13 passengers and one person on the ground were killed. Only 62 people would be alive after the tragedy, and many of them were seriously hurt.
To this day, no one can say for sure what caused the great Hindenburg to crash, burn, and become a part of history.
It explodes and falls to the ground in Lakehurst, New Jersey. 33 is a known dead number.
After safely crossing the Atlantic Ocean, a huge plane bursts into flames.
From the Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio) on May 7, 1937, this is how it looked back then:
A huge explosion shattered the Hindenburg’s silvery body, and the German air liner went up in flames at a US Naval air station in the middle of the night. At least one-third of the 99 people on board are thought to have died.
As small explosions tore into her twisted aluminum skeleton and ribboned fabric hours later, the number of people who died was all over the place.
Harry A Bruno, a spokesman for the zeppelin company that ran the luxury modern dirigible, said that 64 of the people who were on her first trip to the United States in 1937 were able to get back home.
Timothy W Margerum, who lives in Lakewood, said there were already 40 bodies in the garage of the naval station. The garage was quickly turned into a morgue. Oil-fed flames killed many people. Margerum said that other people were dying. Hospitals all over town were full of people who had been hurt.
There was an explosion of the No. 2 gas cell near the ship’s stern, which was blamed for the disaster by the State Aviation Commissioner, Gill Robb Wilson. She called the blast “strange.” The highly flammable hydrogen gas flew into flames as the explosion brought the ship to the airfield. It was said that crew members who worked on the ship’s stern had no chance to get out.
There was no time to prepare for the disaster. In this case, the ship had bent her blunt nose toward the mooring mast, snaked the landing lines down from her belly, and the ground crew had grabbed the ropes from the nose. When the explosion sounded, everyone ran away like sheep.
The passengers on the Hindenburg were taken aback.
The passengers, who had been gaily waving from the observation windows that slit the belly of the dirigible a minute before, were so stunned that they couldn’t describe what had happened later. Some jumped to the sandy landing strip, along with crew members. Others appeared to have been thrown from the careening skyliner as it made its final dive.
The heat drove away would-be rescuers, so it was unclear how many people died in the Hindenburg’s burning tomb. Fire departments from nearby communities converged on the field, and streams of water soon began to play on the broken airliner.
The flames still engulfed the ship’s outline, apparently feeding on the fuel oil supply carried by the Hindenburg for her diesel engines.
The two dogs, 340 pounds of mail, and a ton of luggage she had aboard were somewhere in the blazing furnace.
According to F W Von Meister, vice president of the American Zeppelin Transport Co., the general US agents for the German Zeppelin Transport Co., the Hindenburg’s owners, the explosions could have been caused by one of two things.
He began by describing the rainy conditions that prevailed at the naval air station when the landing attempt was made. The ship circled the field for an hour to wait out a rainstorm, then nosed down when the rain continued to fall.
Von Meister predicted that the rainy conditions would cause a spark of static electricity when the landing ropes were dropped, and that such a spark could have ignited the highly explosive hydrogen gas that gave the long silver ship its lifting power.
Van Meister’s second theory was that a spark flew from one of the engines as they were throttling down for the landing. The ship had been valving hydrogen in preparation for landing, and he suspected that some of the gas had accumulated in a pocket beneath the tail surfaces and detonated when the sparks flew back.
Some authorities investigated the possibility that the explosion was caused by the ignition of hydrogen inside the gas cells. They claimed that an explosion would require a mixture of 20% free air and hydrogen, implying that the first explosion occurred outside one of the gas cells.
Aeronautical experts said the only way an explosion inside the ship could be explained was if free hydrogen had escaped and was lying in the stern of the ship, where it was accidentally ignited.
The airship Hindenburg, one of the largest objects ever to fly, took off from Frankfurt, Germany, on May 3, 1937, with 97 people on board — 36 passengers and 61 officers and crew members.
This Zeppelin was the first airliner to provide regularly scheduled flights between Europe and the United States. The ship flew thousands of miles on this voyage before exploding as they approached Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6.
The German airship burned for only a minute, but that minute was enough to imprint the image of that fiery Zeppelin in the minds of millions around the world. Only 62 people survived the disaster, and many of them were severely injured.
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Following the disaster, the FBI launched an investigation to look into the possibility of sabotage or another deliberate act causing the massive ship’s explosion.
Finally, the US Department of Commerce investigation concluded that “the cause of the accident was the ignition of a mixture of free hydrogen and air.” According to the evidence, a leak at or near cells 4 and 5 caused a significant amount of combustible hydrogen and air mixture to form in the upper stern part of the ship; the first appearance of an open flame was on the top of the ship and a relatively short distance forward of the upper vertical fin. The theory that a brush discharge ignited such a mixture appears to be the most likely.”
Newsreel footage from the Hindenburg disaster
Herbert Morrison was a Chicago radio news reporter who witnessed the Hindenburg’s demise and famously narrated the story as the airship burned. His moving account from the disaster site was not broadcast live, but was saved on a transcription disc recorder.
The following is a transcript of Morrison’s report:
It’s practically stopped now — they’ve dropped ropes from the ship’s nose, and they’ve been grabbed by a group of men down on the field. It’s starting to rain again; it’s… the rain has slowed down a little. The ship’s back motors are just holding it together enough to keep it from…
It’s engulfed in flames! It’s engulfed in flames and crashing to the ground! Keep an eye on it! Remove yourself from the way; remove yourself from the way! Take this, Charlie; take this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s exploding! It’s a terrible crash! Oh my goodness!
Please move out of the way! It’s on fire and bursting into flames, and the… and it’s crashing down on the mooring mast. And everyone agrees that this is terrible; it is one of the world’s worst disasters. [unintelligible] its flames… Oh, there’s a crash! It’s four or five hundred feet in the air and it… Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a fantastic crash.
It’s smoke now, and it’s on fire, and the frame is crashing to the ground, but not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, humankind! And all the passengers around here are yelling. I told you I couldn’t even talk to people because their friends were out there! Ah! It’s… it’s… it’s a… ah! Ladies and gentlemen, I… I can’t speak.
It’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage, and nobody can breathe or talk… I apologize. I’ll be honest, I’m struggling to breathe. I’m going to go inside where I won’t be able to see it. That’s terrible, Charlie. I… Listen, I’m going to have to pause for a moment because I’ve lost my voice… This is the most heinous thing I’ve ever seen.
The tragic demise of the Hindenburg brought an abrupt end to the era of the airship, which had already begun to decline into obsolescence, owing largely to the introduction of long-distance airplane travel.