Over three days, the ship flew thousands of miles safely across open ocean… only to suddenly burst into flames just minutes before the journey’s scheduled end.
When it caught fire and crashed as it was landing in New Jersey at 7:25 p.m on the evening of May 6, 1937, the entire spectacular disasterwas caught on film, and the audio of the accident was also recorded.
In the end, the disaster claimed 36 lives — 22 crewmen, 13 passengers, and one person on the ground. Only 62 would survive the tragedy, and many of them were seriously injured.
To this day, nobody has been able to conclusively prove what caused the great Hindenburg to crash, burn… and subsequently earn a place in history books.
Zeppelin Hindenburg explodes, falls at Lakehurst [New Jersey] – Known dead number 33
Giant airliner plunges in flames after safely crossing Atlantic Ocean
From The Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio) May 7, 1937
Her silvery bulk shattered by a terrific explosion, the German air liner Hindenburg plunged in flames at the US Naval air station tonight, with indications at least one-third of the 99 aboard perished.
As minor explosions continued to tear her twisted aluminum skeleton and ribboned fabric hours afterward, estimate of the death toll were conflicting and duplicating.
Harry A Bruno, press relations counsel for the zeppelin company which operated the luxurious modern dirigible, said that 64 of the persons aboard her on her maiden 1937 voyage here had been reported saved.
Timothy W Margerum, of Lakewood, said there were already 40 corpses in the naval station’s garage had been hurriedly transformed into a morgue. Many of the dead were horribly burned by the oil-fed flames. Margerum reported others were dying. Hospitals for miles around were filled with the injured.
An explosion of the No. 2 gas cell toward the stern of the ship was named as the cause of the disaster by State Aviation Commissioner Gill Robb Wilson, who called the blast “strange.” The highly inflammable hydrogen gas billowed into fierce flame as the explosion plummeted the ship to the airfield. Ground spectators said crew members in the stern of the ship “never had a chance” to escape.
The disaster struck without the least warning. The ship had angled her blunt nose toward the mooring mast, the spider-like landing lines had been snaked down from her belly, and the ground crew had grasped the ropes from the nose, when the explosion roared out, scattering ground crew and spectators like frightened sheep.
Hindenburg’s passengers stunned
The passengers, who were waving gaily a minute before from the observation windows that slit the belly of the dirigible, were so stunned they could not describe later what happened. Some jumped to the sandy landing field along with members of the crew. Others seemed to have been pitched from the careening sky liner as it made its death plunge.
The heat drove back would-be rescuers, so it could not be determined how many the Hindenburg made a burning tomb. Fire departments from nearby communities converged on the field and soon had streams of water playing on the broken airliner.
The flames still enveloped outline of the ship, apparently feeding on the fuel oil supply which the Hindenburg carried for her diesel motors.
Somewhere in the glowing furnace were the two dogs, 340 pounds of mail and the ton of baggage which she had aboard.
F W Von Meister, vice president of the American Zeppelin Transport Co., the general US agents for the German Zeppelin Transport Co., tho Hindenberg’s owners, said there were two possible causes for the explosions.
First he listed the rainy condition which prevailed at the naval air station when the landing was attempted. The ship cruised around over the field for an hour to ride out a rain storm, and nosed down when rain was still falling.
The rainy condition, Von Meister said, would make for the creation of n a spark of static electricity when the landing ropes were dropped, and such a spark might have touched off the highly-explosive hydrogen gas which gave the long silver ship its lifting power.
The second theory Van Meister advanced was that a spark flew from one of the engines when they were throttling down for the landing. The ship had been valving hydrogen preparatory to landing, and he theorized some of the gas might have gathered in a pocket under the tail surfaces and detonated when the sparks flew back.
Some authorities scouted the theory that the explosion could have been caused by the ignition of hydrogen inside tho gas cells. They said a mixture of 20 percent free air with hydrogen would be necessary to cause an explosion, indicating the first blast must have occurred outside one of the gas cells.
Aeronautical experts said the only way they could explain an explosion inside the ship would be that free hydrogen had in some way escaped and was lying in the stern of the ship, where it was accidentally ignited.
“Oh, the humanity”
When one of the largest objects ever to fly — the airship Hindenburg — left Frankfurt, Germany, on May 3, 1937, there were 97 people onboard — 36 passengers, and 61 officers and crew members.
This Zeppelin was the first airliner that provided regularly scheduled flights between Europe and America. On this voyage, the ship flew thousands of miles, only to explode as they were landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6.
The German airship took only a minute to burn, but that moment was enough to etch the image of that fiery Zeppelin onto the minds of millions around the world. Only 62 would survive the tragedy, and many of them were seriously injured.
After the disaster, the FBI opened an investigation to explore the possibility that there was sabotage or other deliberate act that caused the huge ship’s explosion.
Ultimately, the United States Department of Commerce inquiry concluded, “The cause of the accident was the ignition of a mixture of free hydrogen and air. Based upon the evidence, a leak at or in the vicinity of cell 4 and 5 caused a combustible mixture of hydrogen and air to form in the upper stern part of the ship in considerable quantity; 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 mixture appears most probable.”
Hindenburg disaster newsreel footage
Herbert Morrison was a Chicago radio news reporter who was a witness to the Hindenburg’s demise — and famously narrated the story as the airship went down in flames. His heartfelt description from the scene of the disaster was not broadcast live, but was stored on a transcription disc recorder.
Here’s his audio recording, coupled with film footage shot on May 6, 1937:
A transcript of Morrison’s report:
It’s practically standing still now — they’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and 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 slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just enough to keep it from…
It’s burst into flames! It’s burst into flames and it’s falling it’s crashing! Watch it; watch it! Get out of the way; Get out of the way! 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 agree that this is terrible; this is the one of the worst catastrophes in the world. [indecipherable] 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 in 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 out 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, and everybody can hardly breathe and talk… I’m sorry. Honest, I can hardly breathe. I’m going to step inside where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. I… Listen folks, I’m going to have to stop for a minute, because I’ve lost my voice… This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.
The Hindenburg’s tragic demise brought an abrupt end to the era of the airship, which had already begun a decline into obsolescence, largely due to the advent of long-distance airplane travel.