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Reflecting on Hindenburg disaster 75 years on

The Local · 6 May 2012, 11:21

Published: 06 May 2012 11:21 GMT+02:00

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In just over 30 seconds, the largest object ever to roam the skies turned

into a plummeting fireball, crashing onto the airfield at Lakehurst, New


The explosion of the Hindenburg was not the deadliest airship accident in

history and its death toll appears relatively modest compared to many plane

crashes today, yet 75 years later the demise of the German zeppelin is still

remembered as one of the 20th century's most spectacular catastrophes.

"It was one of the first disasters to be documented as it happened," Carl

Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, told news agency AFP.

"We all heard of the Titanic, but we only have the accounts of the people

who were rescued," he said. "For the Hindenburg, we have newsreel footage, the

recording of radio transmissions and pictures."

At the time, newsreels shown before feature films at cinemas brought

the horrifying images to every corner of the US and countries abroad. "It was

right there, you couldn't miss it," Jablonski said.

On the scene was 31-year-old radio reporter Herbert Morrison from Chicago,

whose compelling narration was broadcast nationwide a day after the Hindenburg

crash, sending chills down the spines of the audience.

"It's burst into flames and it's falling, it's crashing", he wailed, crying

out his now famous words: "Oh, the humanity."

Even though the majority of the passengers and crew on board survived,

Morrison deplored "one of the worst catastrophes in the world."

The 1920s and 1930s were the golden age of airship travel. The Germans in

particular fell in love with the technology invented by their aviation pioneer

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin and affectionately called the silvery behemoths

"flying cigars."

The zeppelins became the epitome of luxury travel, shuttling the rich and

powerful between Europe, South and North America.

After the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the floating giants had swastikas

emblazoned on their tail fins, turning their trips into propaganda missions.

The 800-foot-long Hindenburg, which went into service in 1936, was the

pride of the Third Reich's zeppelin fleet.

The airborne luxury liner featured a promenade with a breath-taking view of

the earth and the oceans below, a lavish dining room, a specially designed

lightweight piano - and even a smokers' lounge. The voyage across the

Atlantic took about two and a half days, much faster than a steamboat at the


On May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg left Frankfurt for its first transatlantic

flight of the season. When the airship reached the US East Coast three days

later, it ran into bad weather.

Thunderstorms over Lakehurst delayed the landing for several hours. As the

Hindenburg finally attempted to dock with the mooring mast, it suddenly burst

into flames.

"The actual cause is not really known," said Jablonski. American and German

investigators concluded at the time that a discharge of static electricity set

fire to highly-flammable hydrogen which was escaping through a small gas leak,

ultimately blowing up the entire airship.

Story continues below…

Other theories blame the flammable outer skin of the Hindenburg in

combination with a static spark, an engine failure or even lightning as

causes for the disaster.

The uncertainty surrounding the catastrophe has also nourished conspiracy

theories, with some believing in sabotage committed by an opponent of the

Nazis travelling aboard the Hindenburg.

Jablobski rejects such speculations. "Sabotage was ruled out by the

investigation," he said. "We stick to the mainstream explanation."

The Hindenburg disaster and the images of the inferno effectively ended the

age of airship travel, shattering the public's confidence in the zeppelins


The remaining airships of the German fleet were sent for salvage. The

Hindenburg's equally mighty sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin II, never went into



The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

23:09 May 6, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
I bet Ryanair could make a better go of it now.
04:06 May 7, 2012 by rfwilson
In fact, the actual cause IS known and it has nothing at all to do with hydrogen.

Years after, NASA was able to get a sample of the fabric skin from the archives of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (the manufacturer). In order to reflect sunlight (to keep internal heating to a minimum) the skin material was heavily coated with a very flammable lacquer that was saturated with powdered aluminum for reflectivity. It was shown that a static discharge (spark) as the Hindenburg touched the tower, ignited the highly flammable skin. In fact, in later tests, it took only a small spark to ignite the skin samples.

Note that the hydrogen was contained in internal bags that did not touch the outside skin, and hence a spark could not have ignited it.

The spectacular flames that were seen were the motor's diesel fuel burning, NOT hydrogen! A hydrogen flame is nearly invisible, and because it is lighter than air, the hydrogen that was finally ignited by the burning skin and diesel fuel, instantly rose up and away from the burning Hindenburg.
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