On 6 May 1937, took place a tragedy, caught on film, that haunted the American consciousness for decades.
Built in Germany in 1935 the 800-foot long Zeppelin airship, the Hindenburg, was considered the height of sophisticated travel. It may only have travelled at 80 mph but it was akin to being on a luxury liner and had already made hundreds of journeys across the Atlantic from Germany to Brazil.
The Hindenburg‘s last journey
On its last, fateful journey, the Hindenburg had departed from Frankfurt on May 3, 1937, and was due to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the morning of May 6. But poor weather had delayed its landing by about twelve hours. The captain, Max Pruss, kept his passengers entertained by flying over New York City. The Hindenburg had a capacity for about 70 passengers but on this trip there were only 36 passengers plus 61 crew.
At 7.25 p.m. the Hindenburg was trying to land by docking onto a 270-foot high mooring mast, from where it would be winched down to the ground. The flight was the first North Transatlantic trip of the year and TV and radio crews had gathered to record its arrival. Radio reporter, Herbert Morrison, was describing the events when inexplicably the airship exploded into flames. Despite many theories, the exact cause of the fire remains a mystery.
The Hindenburg lurched as the flames spread at almost 50 feet per second. “Oh, the humanity,” wailed Morrison, a phrase that entered the lexicon of America culture. Within just 37 seconds the Hindenburg had been utterly destroyed.
Of the 97 people on board 35 died: 13 passengers and 22 crew, plus one ground crew member. But 62 did survive by jumping at the right time and running to safety. It wasn’t the first or worst airship disaster but the Hindenburg disaster effectively brought the brief age of the airship to an abrupt end.
Morrison’s commentary was married up to the film footage and flashed across the world. The two mediums ran at slightly different speeds so Morrison’s voice had to be speeded up to match the film, adding to its emotional intensity.
Here, from YouTube, is the footage of the Hindenburg disaster with Morrison’s accompanying commentary, the text of which is below:
“It’s burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it! Watch it! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the one of the worst catastrophes in the world. Its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it—I can’t even talk to people, their friends are out there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it’s just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. Lady, I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t. Listen, folks; I… I’m going to have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
Rupert Colley’s second novel, This Time Tomorrow, set during the First World War, is now available.