Thursday, May 6, 2010

Almanac - May 6, 1937 - Zeppelin Hindenburg Destroyed By Fire

Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, N.J., May 6 -- The zeppelin Hindenburg was destroyed by fire and explosions here at 7:23 o'clock tonight with a loss of thirty-three known dead and unaccounted for out of its ninety-seven passengers and crew.

Link to newsreel footage is here:!

Three hours after the disaster twenty-one bodies had been recovered, and twelve were still missing. The sixty-four known to be alive included twenty passengers and forty-four of the crew. Many of the survivors were burned or injured or both, and were taken to hospitals here and in near-by towns.

The accident happened just as the great German dirigible was about to tie up to its mooring mast four hours after flying over New York City on the last leg of its first transatlantic voyage of the year. Until today the Hindenburg had never lost a passenger throughout the ten round trips it made across the Atlantic with 1,002 passengers in 1936.

Two Theories of Cause

F.W. von Meister, vice president of the American Zeppelin Company, gave two possible theories to explain the crash. One was that a fire was caused by an electrical circuit "induced by static conditions" as the ship valved hydrogen gas preparatory to landing. Another was that sparks set off when the engines were throttled down while the gas was being valved caused a fire or explosion.

Captain Ernst Lehmann, who commanded the Hindenburg on most of its flights last year and was one of tonight's survivors, gasped, "I couldn't understand it," as he staggered out of the burning control car. Captain Max Pruss, commanding officer of the airship, and Captain Albert Stamp were also among the survivors.

Captain Lehmann was critically burned and injured; the other officers were also burned, but less seriously.

Experts in lighter-than-air operations who saw the accident said tonight that when the two landing lines were dropped by the dirigible at 7:20, they were immediately made fast to the mooring cars on the circular track about the mooring mast. The crew began to make the line taut, but the ship had gathered too much momentum, according to three observers, and drifted several hundred yards past the mast. The starboard line pulled hard as the nose of the ship passed over the mooring mast at the top.

Order Not Heard

Captain Pruss, making his first trip in command of the dirigible, signaled and shouted, "Pay out!"

This order was heard by the operator on one mooring car, but not by the other, as the shout went against the wind and could not be heard. Consequently, one mooring car paid out and the other did not. The result was that the ship was thrown off its balance and lost the perfect equilibrium it had previously had.

Its nose dipped, forward ballast was dropped and the elevators were set to raise the ship. Instead the ship was held tight by one yaw line. The nose was pulled over and the elevators had an effect opposite to that which they were intended to have, according to this version. The tail dropped sharply and the bottom rudder hit the earth. The ship bounded up again, then suddenly burst into flames and dropped to the ground.

It is understood that this version of the accident will be investigated by the naval board of inquiry convened for tomorrow and the Department of Commerce. The official investigation will also look into conflicting reports as to whether the fire was accompanied or preceded by explosions. Although most observers reported hearing a series of explosions, some insisted that there were no explosions until after the ship was almost destroyed by fire.

F.E. Fagg, head of the Bureau of Aeronautics of the Department of Commerce, flew in from Washington late tonight and conferred with Commander Charles E. Rosendahl, in charge of the air station. Mr. Fagg announced that Commander Rosendahl would preside over the board of inquiry to open tomorrow.

Commander Rosendahl, together with the 200 members of the ground crew, which had started to walk the dirigible to its mooring place, narrowly escaped injury when the Hindenburg fell in flames.

The catastrophe was witnessed by several hundred spectators, including several who had booked passage on the return trip of the Hindenburg to Germany, which had been scheduled to start at midnight tonight.

Delayed on Voyage

At the time of the crash, the Hindenburg was more than twelve hours late, having been due here at 6 o'clock this morning. Head winds delayed it coming across the Atlantic and down the coast from Labrador. On its last day it flew at reduced speed along the coast, waiting for dusk, as landing conditions are best at dawn and dusk.

After its scheduled landing tonight, it was to have been refueled quickly in preparation for the return voyage.

The airship was sighted here about 4:15 o'clock this afternoon. It flew over the landing field at a good altitude, but because of a strong wind, did not try to land. After circling the reservation, it pointed toward the coast again and disappeared. Shortly afterward thunderstorms blew up over the field and continued until about 7 o'clock.

A light rain was falling and the ground was well soaked when the Hindenburg reappeared, flying in from the coast at an altitude of about 500 feet.

Too high to land, the Hindenburg circled the field and came back at an altitude of about 150 feet. It flew over the mooring mast, doubled back and came in again heading slightly southwest, against the wind, with two lights in its bow against the gathering dusk.

During this turn over the field, the ship had begun to valve gas slightly and had dropped ballast twice to lighten its load for mooring. It was exactly 7:20 P. M. daylight saving time, according to official timing by company and naval authorities, when it dropped two lines to the ground crew.

Observers here said that the wind shifted just before the Hindenburg attempted to land, and that this made it difficult for the ground crew to manoeuvre her. A company representative said that normally the ship would nave been expected to be perfectly safe the moment she dropped her lines.

Lined up on the field below the silvery cone-shaped airship, the ground crew grasped the line and began to walk it the 100 yards to the mooring mast.

Muffled Boom Heard

At 7:23 o'clock those on the ground heard a low report or boom from the ship. Almost simultaneously there was a flash which lighted up the twilight, and sent a thrill of terror through the onlookers.

This was followed quickly by the bursting of flames from the rear gondola on the port side, where the engines had been throttled down in preparation for mooring. Then the flames spread forward, and in a moment the gigantic ship seemed to be enveloped in fire.

Horror gripped the spectators as the airship buckled aft of midships and began to settle slowly down to the ground in a mass of red flames and black smoke.

There was no sound from the ship except the crackling of flames as they crept forward and ate up the outer fabric so that her duralumin ribs could be seen before she struck the ground.

As the stern struck the earth there was another explosion. Then there was a series of explosions as the ship crumpled up and lay burning on the ground, with leaping forks of flame and billowing clouds of smoke rising into the air. There was something strange about the slow and gradual descent of the blazing ship. She came down so deliberately and settled upon the earth so quietly that spectators said afterward that they could not realize for a moment that a tragedy was taking place before their eyes.

This was but a momentary impression, for the shock of the sight, together with the scorching heat from the flames, drove the crowd running back several hundred feet. There were screams from women spectators, inlcuding Mrs. Roendahl, who feared that her husband had been struck and killed by the falling ship.

Running around the ship until they could approach with the wind and not against the flames, rescuers dashed toward the burning dirigible. They included naval officers and sailors, company representatives and newspaper reporters and photographers.

Many of the survivors owe their lives to the heroic work of the volunteer rescue battalion. Others climbed out of the airship unaided, or were thrown clear when the ship grounded.

Some were hurled through the long isinglass strip on the side of the airship, through which passengers in the observation salon formerly looked out to see the country over which they were flying.

It was explained that the three ranking officers of the airship were saved because they were in the control car forward, whereas the original explosion or fire occurred aft,as did the buckling of the ship just before she dropped to the ground.

Because of this, the stern struck the ground first, and the flames, which enveloped the after part of the ship almost instantaneously, were comparatively slow in reaching the bow. This gave the officers in the bow, and more than half of the passengers, who were standing forward to watch the landfall, their chance to escape.

Had the slow fall of the ship taken much longer, however, nearly everybody aboard might have been burned to death, for a few moments after the bow struck the earth the whole ship was a mass of fire and soon nothing but a skeleton framework could be seen.

Can't Tell What Occurred

Passengers and crew members who were interviewed after the accident were unable to give much information as to the cause of the accident or the manner in which it occurred. Most of them said that it happened too quickly, and they were too stunned by the crash, to be able to tell exactly what had happened.

Commander Rosendahl took charge of the rescue work and summoned ambulances and fire engines from a wide area. Late tonight ambulances filled with doctors and nurses were still arriving here, from as far distant points as Jersey City.

While firemen fought the scorching flames rescuers dragged out injured persons and bodies of the dead. The burned and injured were carried from the wreck to a near-by road, where ambulances pulled up and took them aboard for hurried trips to the naval hospital here and hospitals in nearby cities. As the bodies were recovered they were taken to an improvised morgue on the naval reservation.

At midnight, although the flames had been put out, the embers were so hot that the rescuers were unable to complete their search of the wreckage. It was believed that additional bodies would be discovered tomorrow when the search is finished.

Coroner Raymond A. Taylor of Lakewood came here tonight and made plans for an inquest, which probably will he held tomorrow after all the bodies have been recovered. A hangar was being used as an impromptu morgue.

Commander Rosendahl ordered a cordon of sailors around the wreckage to keep sightseers away, and also set up guards outside the reservation to keep everybody out who did not have business inside. State troopers and marines were stationed at all cross-roads within a one-mile radius of the air station, closing the roads to all except police, officials, rescue workers and newspaper men.

Immediately after the disaster, special details of police cleared all highways to make way for doctors and nurses speeding to the scene from other points, Heavy fire engines and police emergency trucks clanging to the scene helped to keep the roads clear.

But while the rescue work was under way thousands of motorists converged toward the scene on all highways leading to Lakeshurst. Before many of the injured had been taken from the first-aid stations on the field, lines of automobiles clogged the road, for nearly ten miles on the main arteries to the north and south of the air station.

Harassed rescue workers and ambulance drivers complained that the press of the advancing crowd was so great that it was seriously hampering their work. As many policemen as could be spared were sent from the scene to patrol the surrounding roads and keep them clear.

A detail of National Guardsmen from Fort Monmouth took up stations on the main highways several miles from the air station and ordered motorists to turn back.
NY Times

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