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 broadcasst live, but was stored on a transcription disc recorder.
Here’s his audio recording, coupled with film footage shot on May 6, 1937:
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.