The Pittsburgh Press (May 7, 1937)
Eyewitnesses, survivors tell of seeing flaming ship fall to earth; guns guard wreckage as investigations begin
By Everett Holles
Proud German queen of skies falls in flames while attempting to land at Lakehurst
This remarkable photograph was taken an instant after the German dirigible Hindenburg, aflame and crumbling, dove toward the earth at Lakehurst, New Jersey, last night, carrying almost two score prisoners – passengers and crew members – to death. By sheer luck or quick thinking, many of the more than 100 persons aboard survived. Some jumped from the airship’s cabins, or were driven out.
William Springfield, an ACME Newspictures photographer, was on the scene to take a picture of the Zep landing. After his first “shot” at the giant ship, he trained his lens on the incoming monster of the air, just in time to catch the photograph shown above. The actual flames are seen on the right while the dark part of the picture is smoke. (ACME)
Lakehurst, New Jersey –
Germany’s mighty Hindenburg Zeppelin, superdreadnought of the sky, crashed in flames at the U.S. Naval Air Station here last night, just as she reached journey’s end after a successful Atlantic crossing.
To 32 persons – 12 passengers, 19 members of the crew and one ground helper – journey’s end was death. Most of the victims were burned to death. Only their skeletons, virtually unidentifiable, were left by the white-hot flame of burning hydrogen.
Sixty-four persons lived through the disaster, aided by luck or quick thinking. Some of these were so gravely burned or otherwise injured they may die. Two of the injured – Irene Doehner of Mexico City and Allen Hagaman, a member of the dirigible’s ground crew – died early today.
Cause of disaster may never be known
The cause of the disaster was undetermined. It may never be established definitely, but experts, examining the still-white-hot wreckage of the largest Zeppelin ever built, said she had probably been brought to her doom by a spark of electricity, either from one of the four diesel engines, or from accumulated atmospheric static electricity, set off when the ship’s soggy landing ropes touched the ground.
This latter theory coincides with that advanced by Maj. Al Williams in an article written last night exclusively for the Pittsburgh Press.
While dirigible men in Germany talked stubbornly of yet larger and faster dirigibles that someday would dominate the ocean airways, and while dirigible men in Washington predicted that the Hindenburg disaster means the end of lighter-than-air transportation, the full story of the catastrophe was old by the burned and broken men and women who lived through it.
Edward Giles, a member of the Hindenburg’s ground crew, gave a graphic description of what happened aboard the stricken airship as he saw it.
Shrieks heard above roar of flames
We had just been given the order to “slack off” the port lead rope as the Hindenburg settled gently down to earth. I saw flame on the top of the ship and an instant later there was a blinding, white-hot blast. Before I had time to run, the Hindenburg lay smashed and flaming on the ground.
The shrieks from inside the wreckage rose above the roar of burning fabric, which burned like a paper balloon. There was nothing we could do. We were helpless against the flames that seared our faces.
Some of the passengers jumped from the cabin windows after the first explosion. Others were blown through the sides of the ship.
I saw a man emerge from the wreckage; every bit of clothing burned from his body. Shreds of flesh hung from his face. He walked 10 or 20 feet, so numbed and dazed he didn’t seem to feel the red-hot debris through which he staggered.
He staggered into the arms of a man only a few feet ahead of me.
A gay arrival – until flames were seen
I am a member of the volunteer ground crew at Lakehurst Naval Station and every time the Hindenburg has arrived, I have been there to help haul her into mooring.
There were 150 of us on hand last night and back near the hangar were 2,000 or more onlookers. I and my friend, Thomas Vernon, were on the main lead and port lead ropes.
It was a gay arrival. Passengers were leaning from cabin windows waving handkerchiefs, and the Hindenburg’s officers megaphoned orders to the ground crew from the control cabin.
We were about to moor the ship to the 200-foot main mast. The tail had been made secure to a ground car operating on a circular railroad track – that is so the tail can shift with the wind – and we were slacking off rope to nose the ship into the big mast.
Then it seemed that we all noticed the flames at once.
An explosion quickly followed. It scattered fabric and bits of metal all over the district. Several more explosions, less severe, followed the first like small bursting firecrackers. They were more puffs of flames than anything else.
The rear of the Hindenburg was in flames in an instant, then the midsection and then the entire ship as it blazed to the ground.
It all must have happened in less than three or four minutes.
The proud flagship of the German Zeppelin service – and one of the three dirigibles remaining after a long series of dirigible disasters since the World War – was on her first commercial flight of the season across the North Atlantic.
She was preparing to land at the end of her voyage. She had thrown out her landing ropes. Her passengers were watching the waiting ground crew.
Suddenly flames ran along the outside of her after quarters, at the top. There was an almost soundless explosion – more like a tremendous vibration – that shook the countryside. This was followed by a series of lesser explosions.
Then, shooting up a great column of flame and smoke, the Hindenburg crashed to earth.
The injured were taken to Paul Kimball Hospital at Lakewood. Three were in critical condition, including Capt. Max Pruss, who was in command of the Hindenburg. He may not live.
The news of the tragedy flashed around the world.
Chancellor Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany who, with other leaders of the Nazi regime whose swastika emblem rode proudly on the Hindenburg’s rudders, regarded the ship as a symbol of the greatness of Germany, was awakened from his sleep to be told of the disaster.
Roosevelt gets news
On his fishing yacht off the coast of Texas, the word was flashed to President Roosevelt, who immediately cabled to Hitler the sympathy of the American people.
News of the tragedy also went to Dr. Hugo Eckener, head of the Zeppelin Company, at Vienna, Austria. Dr. Eckener is the greatest living authority on lighter-than-air craft, the man whose flights have made his name synonymous with dirigibles.
He was stunned for an instant, and then said dirigibles would come back from this disaster and justify his faith and work. He will probably come to America to investigate personally, he said. He indicated a belief that the disaster might have been caused by sabotage. He announced that all future Zeppelins would use non-inflammable helium instead of the highly-combustible hydrogen.
In Lakehurst, officials and experts were assembling for the inevitable investigation. It was likely that a Naval Board of Inquiry would be called, particularly since the disaster occurred on a naval reservation.
Luther flied to scene
Hans Luther, the little, white-haired German Ambassador, flew here from Washington to perform what will probably be his last important task for his country in the United States – he is soon to retire.
Chairman Royal S. Copeland, of the Senate Commerce Committee, sent Col. Harold E. Hartney, an aviation expert, here from Washington to begin a preliminary investigation.
Maj. R. W. Schroeder, Assistant Director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, arrived this morning. The Department of Commerce also ordered Fred D. Fagg here from New York. Chairman Morris Sheppard, of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, said his committee would consider a Congressional investigation of the tragedy.
All these experts hoped the Hindenburg’s end would contribute invaluable information to make future dirigibles proof against accident.
Cdr. Rosendahl early today made this report to his superiors in Washington:
The airship Hindenburg is a total loss from a hydrogen fire originating at or near the stern of the ship and in the ship, during the landing operations at the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, about 7:25 p.m. Thursday ET, March 6, 1937. The landing was being conducted in the normal manner. The ship’s manila tail ropes had been dropped to the ground from an altitude of about 200 feet and there connected to corresponding ground ropes used in landing the ship.
About four minutes after the ropes had been dropped, a fire appeared in the alter part of the ship, and worked progressively forward. The ship settled to the ground tail first, and was practically completely ablaze for her entire length by the time the ground was reached.
Won’t ‘hazard a guess’
It is entirely too early to hazard any guess as to the origin of the fire which destroyed the ship. The cause of the fire and of the consequent loss of the ship will, of course, have to be determined by the investigating bodies.
Cdr. Rosendahl explained to his superiors that there had been no damage to naval property and that:
It was not believed that there were other than minor injuries to any Navy personnel.
He urged the public to stay way from the reservation, which had been closed and was being patrolled by soldiers. A member of the Navy ground crew died after the report had been filed.
In Washington, the embattled little group in Congress and the Navy Department who have maintained their faith in dirigibles despite the Macon, the Akron and the Shenandoah disasters, acknowledged that their hopes that America would again build dirigibles for military purposes had died in the wreckage of the Hindenburg.
Ninth since World War
The great ship and her older and more famous sister, the Graf Zeppelin, which makes regular commercial runs to South America, had been the chief supports of their arguments that dirigibles were safe, were militarily effective, and that this country had not given them sufficient trial.
The Hindenburg was the ninth dirigible to meet disaster since the World War, when many German Zeppelins, during bombing raids on London and Paris, were either shot down or lost in storms. The toll was not the largest, for 73, including RAdm. William Moffett, died when the Akron went down in 1933. But it was the first to occur close to the earth, in full view of hundreds of spectators.
Left Frankfurt Tuesday
The Hindenburg left Frankfurt, Germany, Tuesday on the first of this season’s flights to the United States. Last summer, she had cruised back and forth over the North Atlantic, carrying hundreds of passengers, without the slightest mishap.
This time, off Newfoundland, she encountered headwinds, but that was not alarming. She came down the New England coast yesterday 12 hours later, however. In midafternoon, she sailed over Manhattan, proud, stable, the queen of the skies. At 6 p.m. ET, she appeared over the Lakehurst Station, her American terminal, where the civilian ground crew was waiting,
Thunderstorm came up
A thunderstorm came up suddenly and, with it, blinding rain. So she soared off to await its end.
At 7 p.m., she again came over the field. It was drizzling. There were occasional forks of lightning.
Around the hangar, several hundred civilians – many sightseers, but among the relatives and friends of the Hindenburg’s passengers – waited joyfully. A crowd was thrilled by the big ship – a silver finger in an ebony sky. She appeared tearfully beautiful as her great bulk settled closer and closer to earth.
The crowd could see the passengers at the windows, waving and shouting; it heard the commands rumbling down from the control cabin through megaphones. Ropes dropped out of her tail. Another rope dropped out of her nose.
200 feet from ground
Now she was 200 feet from the crowd. Suddenly, a shrill scream broke out from among the crowd of onlookers. A woman had seen the first puff of flame appear at the top of the ship toward the rear, then race along toward its nose. For an instant, the silence was so absolute that the rippling of the flames was audible.
Then screams and shouts and hysterical weeping lifted toward the ship which by now was shooting up a great column of flame and smoke.
Then there was a terrific explosion – not loud, but with tremendous concussion and vibration – and for miles around, window panes shook.
Some saved by leaps
People came hurtling out of the ship – some of them blown out, others jumping as the big bulk settled. They fell among the spectators and the ground workers. All were at least injured. Some of them were killed.
Joseph Späh of Douglaston, New York, a survivor, said:
There was no time to think of anything else to do, I just heard the explosion and jumped.
The instinct for self-preservation seized the persons on ground at the same instant.
It looked as though the great mass of flame was falling directly upon them, and they scattered, some shouting in their terror, in all directions.
Then courage returned
Then courage returned to some and they turned back.
Harry Wellbrook, a member of the ground crew, said:
We ran when we saw the ship was on fire. Then when she hit the ground, we want back and tried to drag out some survivors. We got three bodies out. All of them were burned beyond recognition.
The Hindenburg hit the ground, enmassed in flames from one end to the other, with a thud.
Grotesque, piteous figures appear
Grotesque, piteous figures appeared from the flames. There was a man entirely nude, running as though possessed. The sudden, searing flames had burned every stitch from his body.
Another naked man – another and another. There was a man whose hair had been burned off – a woman and a man bleeding profusely from face wounds – a man whose face was raw, whose facial flesh hung in little appendages from tiny strips of flesh.
Then a bleeding figure staggered from the fire. It was clad in a uniform that had been torn and ripped. Its face was begrimed and cut. Its blue eyes stared strangely. It was Capt. Lehman.
He said shakily, addressing no one:
I can’t understand how it happened. I can’t understand how it…
He repeated his statement over and over. He was carried off to the hospital in Lakewood, New Jersey.
They picked up Capt. Pruss from the field. He was badly hurt.
Capt. Anton Wittemann, the third in command of the Zeppelin, was not hurt.
Ambulances were assembled immediately while members of the ground crew pulled as many as they could of the persons still in the wreckage to safety.
Soldiers from Camp Dix arrived. Within a half-hour, the naval reservation was closed and soldiers patrolled its outer limits. Through the night, the rescue work proceeded.
Money box rescued, in vain
Sailors, manning trucks, rumbled back and forth across the field, plunging into the smoke and flame. Civilians inside the enclosure aided them.
Steward Kubis of the Hindenburg ran through the fire until he got to the metal box where the ship’s money was carried. When he opened it, the German paper money had been burned to ashes.
Hospitals in all nearby towns were busy, and shortly before midnight, they issued a plea for German interpreters. Many passengers and members of the crew were in critical condition, the hospitals reported, and were unable to identify themselves because they could not speak English.
Murray Becker, a photographer, said he had his camera up to his eye when the explosion occurred. He said:
The explosion seemed to be in the center. Everything was in flames. In a second, there wasn’t much left except skeletons. I saw a man being assisted by two other men. He didn’t have any clothes on.
Walter Galliford, 14, said he was 200 yards away from the ship when it exploded. He said:
The first explosion occurred aft. Then almost at the same time there was another explosion. The center of the ship burst into flames. The stern hit the ground with a crash. It all happened in only a few seconds. I don’t see how anyone escaped. The heat was terrific where I was standing. I had to run as fast as I could.
Saw ‘spurt of flame’
Alfred Snook, another eyewitness, gave this account of the disaster:
I drove up to the air station about 10 minutes before the explosion. I was sitting in my auto, which was parked on the south end of the field, when the airship passed overhead. It was about 700 feet from me.
I got out of my auto and walked toward the airship. I saw a concrete platform and got on that to get a better view.
I saw a spurt of flame from the dirigible. It seemed to come from the rear of the ship.
Then the entire airship became enveloped in flames. The nose of the airship was jerked upward, then the whole flaming hulk plummeted to the ground, where the wreckage was instantly enveloped in dense black smoke.
Harry Thomas, a naval electrician, said:
The heat was terrific. I saw a man pinned in the gondola, screaming. I helped pull the man out and carried him away. It was a German electrician that I met over here last summer. He had a broken leg and burns on his face and body.
Ground crew in trouble
Leroy Comstock Jr., a civilian, said it appeared to him that the ground crew was having trouble with the Hindenburg at the time of the explosion. He said:
As the ship burst into flames, the ground crew abandoned ropes because of the intense heat.
From a hospital bed, 22-year-old Theodor Ritter, mechanic aboard the dirigible, called out in broken English:
Gertrude, Gertrude, Gertrude.
Authorities sent for an interpreter. Herr Ritter, slightly injured, explained that he wanted his sweetheart back home in Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, to know that he had survived. He said:
I was in one of the engine gondolas. There was no indication that anything was wrong.
Sudden flash of flame
We stopped the engine. Suddenly there was a flash of flame. Our gondola was ripped from the ship. When it hit the ground, I picked myself up and ran.
Gill Robb Wilson, New Jersey state director of aviation, said the Hindenburg appeared to be functioning perfectly before the explosion. He said:
As the fire swept forward, the rest of the ship settled. As it did, passengers and crew were either thrown, blown or jumped from parts of the ship in which they were standing. It is a miracle that so many were saved.
Herbert Rau of The Lakewood Daily Times, who was telephoning his office when the explosion occurred, told of the turmoil directly afterwards.
Heard women shriek
Scores of people who had come to Lakehurst to see the Hindenburg’s arrival began to run, some away from the fire, others toward it. Women who had come to Lakehurst to meet friends or relatives arriving on the Hindenburg shrieked.
Then I heard the sounds of ambulance and firetruck sirens as I ran toward the ship. They sped to the scene of the crash, loaded dead and living persons into the vehicles and drove away.
Virtually all the passengers and crew dragged out of the wreckage were a mass of blood and burns.
Right behind me was a detachment of Marines. Alongside of me passed private autos coming from the mast, with horns blaring. The mast is a quarter of a mile from the hangar.
Flames were burning only in the center of the ship.
Mass of twisted wreckage
Both the nose and the tail were masses of twisted wreckage. Shiny duraluminum girders looked like black sticks.
Persons whose clothes were so badly burned that it was impossible to determine whether they were passengers or members of the dirigible crew or the ground crew, were being loaded into autos and trucks and carried away. It was impossible to tell whether they were dead or alive.
Screeching women, men wearing Zeppelin Company official bands, with tears running down their faces, were hurrying toward the wreckage.
Harry J. King, baggageman at Lakehurst Air Station, gave the following account:
I was standing next to a baggage truck when the Hindenburg blew up. It was about 200 feet off the ground, and 200 feet from the mooring mast, when suddenly the tail of the ship burst into flame.
There was a low combustion explosion. Then a bigger one, and I was knocked against my truck.
One man jumped out of one of the gondolas of the airship, he broke his leg when he struck the ground and lay there twisting on the ground until the field man ran up and carried him away.
One woman was blown right through the cabin. She landed near me – alive.
An old man came running up, yelling for his family. His coat and his hair were burning. I ripped off his coat and then rubbed his hair in dirt until I put out the fire.
I saw them take out 11 bodies and two dead dogs.
There were 340 pounds of freight and 240 pounds of mail aboard the dirigible, in addition to a ton of baggage, he said.
Blames engines or static
Harry A. Bruno, press relations representative of the American Zeppelin Transport Company, said:
Storm conditions were prevailing about the field and there was some lighting and static. In my opinion, there were one or two causes of the disaster. One of the causes may have been a static spark that flew up one of the two landing ropes at the time when the ship was possibly valving gasoline.
The second is that both rear engines were throttled down and the explosion may have been caused by a flying spark.
I was standing directly under the nose of the ship with William von Meister, vice president of the Zeppelin Company.
The nose of the ship was about 75 feet in the air and the tail was about 85 or 90 feet in the air.
Under tail flippers
Suddenly there was a terrific explosion under the tail flippers. Several passengers were leaning out of the cabin windows as the ground crew was preparing to dock the ship. The flames shot through the ship in a moment.
I saw two passengers hurled out of the window to the ground.
Von Meister and myself turned and ran as fast as we could to get out from under the big hulk that was enveloped in flame and was descending on us.
The ship struck the ground with a terrible crash and with many loud explosions.
We ran about 200 feet from the ship. Then we started back toward it.
Today, the investigations were beginning. Experts united to trace back to its origin the tiny yellow spark that set off the flash of flame which destroyed the Hindenburg.
The flare of fire from the ship was almost like a tragic laboratory experiment before the eyes of men trained for years in airship problems; men such as Cdr. Rosendahl, who watched from the landing field, and Capt. Lehman, who was in the control cabin.
These men – seeking all their lives the mystery of airship disasters – saw the “perfect” dirigible destroyed. They agreed, so far as they have reached a decision, that somewhere an electric spark flashed through a mixture of hydrogen and air, touching off the explosion.
That instantaneous explosion resulted because the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen, which is one of the most explosive gases known when mixed with air, as it would be if there were any leak in the gas bags or if any gas accumulated in the ship when the gas valves were opened for landing.
Helium, which was used in U.S. airships but is not available outside of the United States, will not explode, but it is heavier than hydrogen and makes a ship more difficult to maneuver.
Whether the spark leaped from a motor, shot out of an exhaust as the ship swung slightly sidewise or was the result of a heavy accumulation of static that touched off the explosion as the soggy landing ropes touched the field, they could not definitely say.
It was the answer to that mystery that was sought in conferences among German and American officials, aviation experts and those who had seen or lived through the disaster.
Probably never before had trained experts had such an opportunity to view the destruction of a great airship at such close range from both inside and outside, and live. For that reason, informal investigation and conferences started at once, with the prospect later of a Navy Board of Inquiry being summoned.
Still another phase of the inquiry began with the arrival from Washington of Fred Fagg Jr., who was facing one of his first big jobs since his appointment as head of the Bureau of Air Commerce.
Dozen varied stories
Into the hands of these investigators went the stories of the crash as seen by different spectators or victims from every angle. Pieced together, these stories showed that the Hindenburg came in from a rainy sky, circled once and then loafed away.
When she came back later, some observers believed the Hindenburg was moving a little more rapidly than usual, but apparently her speed was not sufficient to cause general comment.
An order was shouted in German from the bridge. Over came the landing ropes and down against the wet ground went the trailing rope intended to drain the big ship of any accumulation of static – a routine procedure.
Trailing ropes seized
The landing crew seized the trailing ropes and pulled her toward the mooring mast mounted on a small railroad track.
A moment later, the first flicker of flame was seen. She was almost instantly in flames, that burst upward through her interior, and then enveloped her.
The disaster occurred almost a year to the day from the time the Hindenburg first landed on American soil – May 9, 1936. Today sentries, with ready rifles, encircled the heap of metal, keeping everyone 30 feet away.
Sun shines grudgingly
Now and then, one of the German searchers – dressed in white stewards’ jackets – paused to pick up some bit from the wreckage, perhaps a reminder of someone cremated there.
The sun shone grudgingly on the twisted framework, hazing the green, blue, black and silver of the Zeppelin’s skeleton, colors painted by fire and chemicals on the once-silver duralumin.
Along the east side of the wreck, toward Lakehurst Naval Station’s big Zeppelin’s hangar that stands 800 yards away, lay two of the Hindenburg’s motors. As large as a one-car garage, they were buried in the soft ground. Their propeller blades were red splinters.
Cotton fails to burn
Overhead, like the webbing of some giant spider, wires and shredded silver fabric were entangled.
Cotton padding, designed to keep a motor from tearing through the paper-thin sides of the Zeppelin in event of its tearing loose, hung grotesquely alongside the fallen motor gondolas. In some unexplained manner, it had not burned.
The windows of the salons and passengers’ promenades, made of a cellulose substance, had melted and hung from the Hindenburg’s ribs like silver tinsel.
Return trip fuel ready
At the snub nose of the Hindenburg – only 200 yards from the Lakehurst mooring mast that she never reached – the heavy mooring cone of steel appeared undamaged, a wire cable dangling limply.
The tail of the ship, where the fire started, was a burned, unrecognizable mass.
Near Lakehurst Station’s administration building, a loaded tank car stood on a sidetrack. On its side was plastered a sign:
Fuel for the Hindenburg on her home voyage.