The arrival of the Hindenburg, thirteen hours behind schedule, at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the evening of May 6, 1937, promised to be routine. The ship had an unblemished safety record on eighteen previous Atlantic crossings.
In fact, no passenger had ever lost his life on any commercial airship. Still, because this was the beginning of the most ambitious season yet for airship voyages, reporters, photographers and news reel cameramen had their eyes and lenses focused on the great dirigible as it approached. When disaster struck it was sudden. Without warning flames gushed from within the Hindenburg’s hull; thirty-two seconds later the airship lay on the ground, ravaged. Never had the sights and sounds of a disaster in progress been so graphically documented.
Within a day, newspaper readers and theater audiences were confronted by fiery images of the Hindenburg. Radio listeners heard the emotional words of newsman Herb Morrison, sobbing into his recorder, “It’s burning, bursting into flames, and it’s falling on the mooring mast and all the folks. This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. . .
. Oh, the humanity and all the passengers!(Marben 58)” When this floating cathedral, called the Hindenburg, burst into a geyser of flaming hydrogen there was a tremendous impact on the public, although two thirds of the people on board survived. Two theories about why it happened surfaced and this tragedy put an end to the short age of these massive airships.The demise of the Hindenburg had a searing impact on public consciousness that far surpassed the bare statistics of the calamity. Men and women escaped, even from this inferno. One elderly lady walked out by the normal exit as though nothing had happened and was unscratched.
A fourteen-year-old cabin boy jumped to the ground into flames and smoke. He was almost unconscious from the fumes when a water-ballast bag collapsed over his head. He got out. One passenger hacked his way through a jungle of hot metal using his bare hands. Another emerged safely, only to have another passenger land upon him and cripple him.
One man, at an open window with every chance to jump to safety, went back into the flames to his wife, both died. The final count was 36 dead, including 13 passengers. Nearly two thirds, of the 97 persons on board survived, but that fact was forever obscured, and the name Hindenburg became comparable only to the name Titanic(Abbott 69).Of all airship crashes, Hindenburg’s remains the most mysterious and the most contentious, partially because of its fame.
Many theorists were attracted to the idea of sabotage. An incendiary device could have been positioned at the place the fire started. There was an access ladder from the keel as well as a ventilation shaft to fan the flames(124). The most attractive aspect of the sabotage theory is timing. Had the airship arrived on time at six o’clock in the morning a bomb timed for after seven p.m. would not have caused the horrifying casualties(125).
In the absence of any real evidence to support the theory, some have been tempted to provide the villain instead. Max Pruss, captain at the time of the crash, eventually came to suspect a certain passenger(125). Others have chosen members of the crew. But not only did the American investigators fail to find any evidence of sabotage, the Gestapo investigation was equally negative.
Unconvinced by this, some of the sabotage theorists have made the whole thing into a Nazi plot(Marben 87).Many explanations fit the circumstances without the “sensational” solutions. The presence of free hydrogen deep inside the ship can be attributed to various causes. The very slow approach-speed of the airship, after valving gas, might well have left some gas residue in the shafts.
The tail heaviness, noticed by the elevator man, might have been the result of a gas leak(Abbott 251). The only other necessary ingredient is the spark. Both American and German investigators agreed that some form of static discharge was the source of the fire(250).The burning of the Hindenburg made it clear once and for all that dirigible travel was merely a blind alley in the evolution of flight.
The giant airships’ remaining loyalists were abandoned, along with Gill Robb Wilson, the landing supervisor at Lakehurst that fateful evening, “Those of us long in the air know what it is to reach out in salute to the embodiment of our hopes, and suddenly find our fingers filled with ashes(Marben 59).”