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Hindenburg crash ends an era in air travel

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Hindenburg crash ends an era in air travel
The dramatic moment the Hindenburg caught fire. Photo: DPA
12:25 CEST+02:00
On May 6th 1937 the German passenger airship Zeppelin Hindenburg burst into flames and crashed just before landing at Lakehurst naval air station in New Jersey. The news coverage capturing the disaster became famous for its high drama.

The Hindenburg departed from Frankfurt for the USA on the evening of May 3rd, 1937, on the first of 10 round trips between Europe and the US that were scheduled for its second year of service.

Apart from strong headwinds that slowed its progress, the crossing of the Hindenburg was otherwise unremarkable until the airship attempted an early evening landing at Lakehurst three days later on May 6. 

At 7:25pm the airship suddenly caught fire just before landing at the American airfield. 

The cause of the explosion was uncertain, and different hypotheses have been suggested over the years including sabotage, static electricity sparks, lightning, or engine failure.

What was certain was that over a third of the people aboard were killed in the blaze. Of the 97 passengers and crew, there were 35 casualties as well as one ground staff member who was also killed.

The terrible disaster was caught on film because of the strong public interest in the first transatlantic flight of the season. The footage is as spectacular as it is harrowing.

The original report printed in the New York Daily News describes the crash:

"The mammoth airliner was nosing down in a long glide toward the mooring mast when a terrific explosion ripped through the stern directly in front of the Nazi swastikas gleaming on the fish like tail of the ship.

A great sunburst of flame haloed the tail. Explosion after explosion boomed out as the fire spread through the hydrogen compartments that kept the Hindenburg afloat. In a second, the entire ship was aflame 300 feet above the sandy field.

Some, with clothes flaming, jumped to certain death. Others fell beneath the ship and were crushed and burned to death under the wreckage. Some were literally blown free; some leaped to safety in the cushioning sands and staggered into the arms of rescuers with their clothing aflame."

The shocking newsreel footage and harrowing eyewitness radio commentary given by Herbert Morrison have become world famous, coining the world-famous phrase "oh, the humanity!"

German airship captain Ernst Lehmann was considered as the most experienced Zeppelin pilot in the world. He initially escaped the crash with severe burns to his head and arms, but later died in hospital from his injuries.

In agony from his hospital bed, he moaned over and over again: "Das versteh' ich nicht!" (I don’t understand it).

The dramatic coverage of the disaster all but ended public faith in safety of airships and marked the end of the era of giant passenger-carriers of this kind.

There had been a series of other airship accidents prior to the Hindenburg disaster, many of which were caused by extreme weather conditions, but only two others cost more civilian lives than the Hindenburg crash.

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