If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “oh, the humanity,” you’ve heard of the Hindenburg disaster, perhaps unknowingly. At a time when aviation was still in its infancy, the German company Luftschiffbau Zeppelin created the largest airship ever to sail the skies. The LZ129 Hindenburg was an astonishing 803.8 feet (245 meters) in length, and 135.1 feet (41 meters) in girth, roughly the size of the ocean-going Titanic. It completed many successful trips in its first year of service and was the first commercial transatlantic airship, but on a rainy evening at a Naval airbase in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the dirigible came to a spectacular and fiery end.
Hindenburg’s three-day transatlantic crossing that began on Monday evening, 3 May 1936 was uneventful but for bad weather that seemed to dog the journey. At midnight, the airship encountered its first storm over the North Sea, and by predawn, it had risen from its usual cruising altitude of 800 to 1,000 feet (244-305 meters) to 2,100 feet (640 meters) to fly above the storms as it followed the English Channel. Midday Tuesday saw the Hindenburg resume a normal cruising altitude as it passed southwest of Ireland, but again encountered strong headwinds heading out over the Atlantic. Wednesday passed uneventfully enough as it sailed within 808 miles (1,300 km) of Newfoundland, Canada. Reportedly, Captain Lehmann spent some time that evening in the lounge playing his accordion for passengers.
The next day, 6 May 1936 at roughly 3:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the great shadow of the Hindenburg slipped over New York City as it majestically crisscrossed the city. The international passengers were treated to views of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Harlem, the Bronx and a baseball game in progress between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets field. While the airship had the option to land at 4:00 p.m., a lightening storm in the area caused Commander Pruss to opt for a scenic ride up the Eastern seaboard instead, hoping weather conditions would improve before having to set down. As hoped, the sky began clearing, and at 7:00 p.m. the mighty Hindenburg approached the Naval airbase in Lakehurst, New Jersey to set down. A crowd of reporters, dignitaries and well-wishers were on hand for the newsworthy event.
The starboard bow mooring rope dropped to the ground 260 feet (79 meters) below at 7:23 p.m., just as witnesses saw a blue arc forward of the tail fin, followed by a huge fiery explosion. Flames engulfed the entire rear of the Hindenburg and the airship began falling, stern first, to the ground. Fire shot across the ship’s skin, fueled by the hydrogen within, as the nose of the bow shot flames skyward, following the stern down.
Ground crews below ran for their lives with the colossal fiery ship swallowing the sky above. Many passengers and crew frantically leapt for their lives through broken windows, some attempting to slide down mooring ropes as the unbelievable catastrophe unfolded. No sooner had the gigantic ship collapsed into a fiery heap, than ground crews ran back into towering smoke and flames to help escaping passengers that rode the ship to the ground. Many people were pulled from the wreckage on fire, while others miraculously escaped unharmed. The entire disaster took place in just 32 seconds.
There are many newsreels of the Hindenburg disaster, and a live radio broadcast from Chicago reporter Herbert Morrison. Morrison’s heartfelt devastation at seeing the disaster resounded in his words. Among his archived report is the now-famous phrase, “Oh, the humanity!” Of the 61 crew and 36 passengers, 22 crew members, 13 passengers, and 1 ground crew member died. Two dogs on board also perished.
There are many theories as to what caused the Hindenburg disaster, though no official finding was ever made. Favored theories include the “static electricity theory” that asserts electrical charge build-up on the flammable skin of the airship sparked the disaster, but this theory has also been challenged.
It might be interesting to note that Dr. Hugo Eckener took over Luftschiffbau Zeppelin after World War I. Eckener was a strong-willed, yet peaceful man at odds with the growing National Socialist Party in Germany better known as the Nazi party. His disdain of Adolph Hitler was well known. Nevertheless, he was reluctantly compelled to accept large sums of money from the then-burgeoning party to get the Hindenburg built. Because of this, it bore Nazi swastikas on its tailfins by demand of its investors.
At the time the Hindenburg sailed, the Third Reich had yet to make its mark on the world and used the ship to drop propaganda pamphlets and promote the party. It was Eckener’s hope that the dirigible would be used to unite nations and promote peace, making the disaster even more tragic. The Hindenburg's demise brought an end to the short-lived popularity of airships for commercial flight. Though the Zeppelin company continues today as Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, airships are much smaller, intended for pleasure rides, advertising, broadcasting live events from an aerial platform, and other observational missions.