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
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
“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.
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