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 59)."

Category: History