The Hindenburg Tragedy

It was on this day in 1937 that the largest airship that the world has ever seen, Germany’s Hindenburg, was destroyed in an apocalyptic ball of flame at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The calamitous event was one of the first disasters that was captured live on radio, and the recording of the event was subsequently broadcast across the United States. Chicago radio station WLS had their reporter Herb Morrison at the scene to cover the landing of the great zeppelin. His vivid description of the tragedy, with his immortal exclamation, “Oh! The Humanity!!!” remains one of the defining moments of broadcast journalism.

As the immense aircraft was readying to land at Lakehurst, a fire burst forth from the aft section. within seconds, the entire vessel was consumed and the twisted skeleton crashed to earth. Of the 97 people aboard the ship, 35 died in the flames, and nearly all of the survivors were severely injured. Investigations from that time concluded that a fire of unknown origin had ignited the airship’s highly flammable hydrogen gas. Hitler’s government took advantage of the occasion to condemn the United States’ policy forbidding the export of the safe gas helium, (the U.S. had all the world’s reserves of helium) but never so much as hinted that the tragedy might have been the result of saboteurs or provocateurs within the U.S.

Many theories have been offered about the Hindenburg tragedy. One “mainstream” explanation is that atmospheric electrical charges from the day’s thunderstorms used the great vessel as a ground (it was already connected to its mooring lines when the tragedy struck) and ignited the extremely flammable hydrogen. Another theory is that the ship was the victim of anti‐Nazi saboteurs who wished to destroy the mighty symbol of German prowess. One recently offered explanation blames the ship’s highly flammable cloth skin ‐‐ and not the hydrogen gas ‐‐ for the fire, noting that the flames spread in a conventional pattern, atypical of gaseous fires.

In the early 1960’s, a small, far‐right magazine in West Germany published an article in which it was declared that Hindenburg had been destroyed by British agents in revenge for the torpedoing of Lusitania 22 years earlier. The article offered not so much as one shred of evidence to support its claims, yet the theory continues to surface. The 1975 movie “Hindenburg” exploited the sabotage theory in its plot. There is still no completely satisfactory “official” explanation.

The flaming ruin of Hindenburg effectively ended the era of transatlantic dirigibles. By 1945, the world’s remaining lighter‐than‐air vessels were consigned to novelty status. For many years, the only dirigible that most Americans were aware of was “The Goodyear Blimp” which is actually any one of a fleet of Goodyear blimps. In the past decade or so, blimps have become something of a status symbol, so today we have blimps sponsored by film makers and other concerns far, far removed from lighter‐than‐air flight.

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