The Hindenburg


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


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