The Hindenburg disaster, 80 years on: a 'perfect storm of circumstances'
On 6 May 1937, the zeppelin caught fire and crashed in New Jersey, killing more than 30 people. Disaster could have been averted, experts say
Joanna Walters in New York
Sunday 7 May 2017 09.00 BST Last modified on Sunday 7 May 2017 09.01 BST
The huge airship had circled three times around the Empire State Building. It was on its way to land in New Jersey. From her home in southern Pennsylvania, Libby Magness Weisburg watched the Hindenburg glide by.
“It was amazing how beautiful it was,” she told the Guardian on Saturday. “The silver airship against a clear blue sky. How enormous. It was the most exquisite thing I had ever seen.”
Then the zeppelin turned. Its tail swung into view. On it, stark and black, were swastikas.
“We had no inkling of what Hitler was really doing to the Jews already, but I knew Germany was the enemy,” said Weisburg, 89. “I was startled, and that beauty up there turned into fear.”
Her neighbors, she said, gesticulated angrily at the sky.
Not long after, on 6 May 1937, as it was coming in to moor at the naval base at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed. Of the 97 people on board, 62 miraculously escaped the burning wreckage. But 22 crew members, 13 passengers and one worker on the ground were killed.
After the disaster, President Franklin Roosevelt and King George sent telegrams of condolence to Hitler.
Eighty years on, as the spectacular crash is remembered with ceremonies and in retellings, its precise cause remains unknown. What is certain is that it could have been avoided, or at least minimized, if not for a “perfect storm” of unfortunate events and errors.
“The landing was rushed and they took shortcuts on some of the safety procedures,” Rick Zitarosa, a historian with the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, said.
The Hindenburg crash was the first major transport disaster captured on film, in dramatic footage ever since paired with recorded commentary by a radio reporter who reacted in horror to the shocking scene before him.
Few people directly connected to the disaster are still alive. The lone remaining survivor from the airship itself, Werner Doehner, is now an 88-year-old resident of Colorado.
“Suddenly the air was on fire,” he said this week, speaking to the Associated Press.
The Hindenburg was about 200ft off the ground when it combusted – not “exploded”, as some have since described it. It burned from tail to nose in just 34 seconds but as it collapsed to Earth, Doehner’s mother threw him and his 10-year-old brother from the craft. All three survived.
Just before the fire broke out, however, Werner’s father had gone to the family cabin.
“We didn’t see him again,” Doehner said.
His 14-year-old sister escaped the wreck but rushed back into it to look for their missing father. After emerging without him, she did not survive her burns.
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Footage of the disaster.
Speculation about sabotage was rife, as this archive news report from the Guardian shows. There had been reports of bomb threats to the transatlantic passenger airship program, the pride of Nazi Germany.
Investigations, however, concluded that a spark of static electricity had most likely ignited leaking hydrogen as, in Zitarosa’s words, “they brought the ship in for landing under thunderstorm conditions”.
It is most widely believed that the leak came from one of the ship’s rear gas containers. What caused the leak is not known. Zitarosa surmised that a broken length of wiring or other piece of hardware somehow ripped the container, which was made of a tough cotton fabric with a film of early latex-type material.
Other factors may have contributed. The Hindenburg was 12 hours late to Lakehurst, having been delayed by strong headwinds across the north Atlantic before spending several hours flying around the area, waiting for storms to clear.
Zeppelins normally took two and a half days to reach the US from Germany, moving twice as fast as an ocean liner. Although the Hindenburg had taken three days, it had plenty of diesel fuel left. It could have flown further.
But passengers, among them dignitaries heading for England and the coronation of King George VI, were waiting. The airship was due to turn around in record time.
Its pilots attempted a so-called high landing, in which ropes were tossed to the ground from around 200ft, for ground crew to pull the giant craft down and secure it to a mooring mast.
This would be quicker than a more usual low landing, by which the airship approached long and low until it touched the ground and could be dragged to the mooring mast. A low approach carried less risk, but took more men on the ground and more time.
Either way, it was known to be extremely dangerous to land in thundery weather. Ground crew members were soaked and there was electricity in the air.
A London news vendor, carries posters promoting coverage of the Hindenburg disaster in local newspapers in London. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
“When the ship dropped its landing ropes, they got wet and acted as conductors,” said Zitarosa. “The ship became grounded and that’s why we think the static electricity made a spark and caught the leaking hydrogen.”
In a flash, the craft was shooting flames for hundreds of feet, its burning skeleton collapsing.
A Chicago radio reporter, Herbert Morrison, bore witness to the raging inferno.
“It burst into flames, it burst into flames!” he cried. “And it’s falling, it’s crashing …it’s crashing terrible … Oh, the humanity … oh, ladies and gentlemen …”
If the Hindenburg had caught fire after a low landing, many more would probably have escaped with their lives. The fire may also have been avoided completely, because the forward motion of the airship, as opposed to hovering, would have given the leaking hydrogen more chance of being flushed away through louvered vents.
“It was a perfect storm of circumstances,” said Zitarosa. “The late schedule, the weather, the leak, the decision to make the landing at that time and in that way and the use of hydrogen in general. The disaster could have been avoided on several counts, but caution was thrown to the wind.”
Despite the US maintaining a monopoly on commercial supplies of helium, an inert gas that would make airship travel much safer, news reports after the crash suggested that a bullish Germany was going to keep the zeppelin program going. In reality, thanks to the advent of the passenger plane, the airship business was already sliding towards obsolescence.
Zeppelins never landed at Lakehurst again. Before long, American dirigibles were taking off from there instead, searching for German submarines.