22 December 2010

Accidents: Oh, the Humanity!

By Delia DeLeest

It was the equivalent of riding in a cruise ship in the air. You could take an airplane if you wanted to, but it was so much more elegant and comfortable taking a dirigible. The most famous dirigibles were made by Zeppelin and its newest ship was called The Hindenburg.

Zeppelin was very proud of its ships safety history. Its flagship, the LZ127 Graf Zeppelin, during its nine year career, traveled 1.5 million miles (590 flights) with a perfect passenger safety record. The Hindenburg had already made its maiden voyage from Frankfurt, Germany to Rio de Janeiro back in March of 1936, and then it was heading to Manchester, New Jersey. It was time to land in its final destination.

It was 7:25pm on May 6, 1937. Though it was capable of handling seventy passengers, it was only half full, with a passenger list of thirty-six people being serviced by a crew of sixty-one. Its return trip was fully booked, with many people were heading to Europe for the coronation of England's new king, George VI. At 803 feet long and 103 feet in diameter, the huge, silver ship was beautiful.

Bad weather, forced the ship to circle the landing field for three hours before it began its final descent. Times were sure different then. Can you imagine the fuss people would make now days if they were forced to circle the airport for three hours before their plane landed? But, then again, The Hindenburg was a whole lot more comfortable than today's 747s.

The crew had finally dropped the mooring lines to the grounds men below when disaster struck. Nobody is sure what exactly happened, though there are many theories, including sabotage, lightning, and incendiary paint. The most common conclusion is that a combination of static electricity, created by the bad weather, and a leak in a cell of hydrogen--the lighter-than-air gas used to float the mighty ship.

The whys and hows don't really matter now. What is known is that at 7:25pm, as it was landing, The Hindenburg burst into flames. The fire started in the rear of the vessel--whether on the port or starboard side is debated, as there were conflicting accounts--and quickly spread through the entire ship. In about thirty-five seconds from start to finish, the entire ship was engulfed in flames and crashed to the ground.

Though hydrogen is relatively harmless on its own, it becomes highly flammable when mixed with oxygen. Within ninety seconds of it igniting, the ship's entire supply had been burned up. The rest of the ship burned for several hours after the crash. With an outer skin of cotton cloth covered with a plasticized lacquer, The Hindenburg was a firebomb looking for a place to happen.

In my eyes, the most fascinating aspect of the entire Hindenburg disaster is the low fatality count. Though it took only about forty-five seconds for the entire crash and burn, only thirteen passengers were killed, with the majority of those seated on the starboard side of the craft. Along with the passengers, there were twenty-two Hindenburg crew members killed and one man on the ground crew--in all, slightly more than one third of the number of people traveling on the Hindenburg, and an unknown number of people on the ground both working as crew and spectators (the landing of the mighty Zeppelin was a big event, even without its subsequent crash).

Though there were at least five moving picture cameras at the scene, none of them was trained on the vessel when it burst into flames. The famous Herbert Morrison radio broadcast is the only live record of the actual event. His commentary later became the first recorded radio news report to be nationally broadcast by NBC. Later, Morrison's poignant report was streamed with video footage of the catastrophe taken both before and after the disaster and makes for some incredibly heart-touching viewing.

So, what really happened to The Hindenburg? No one will probably ever know. But, what we do know is that the tragedy undermined the public's confidence in the huge airships, that along with the development of Pan American Airlines, ushered in the end of the age of huge passenger airships. In 1987, on the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, a bronze plaque surrounded by a chain was dedicated at the scene of the crash at Lakehurst Navel Air Station.

Delia DeLeest is fascinated by all things 1920s. She suspects she was once a flapper or, more probably, a bootlegger in a previous life. Her third 1920s era book, NOT LOOKING FOR TROUBLE, is being released from The Wild Rose Press at the end of October.


Lisa Maire Wilkinson said...

Fascinating article, thank you! The footage was amazing and really emphasizes the scope of the disaster.

Delia DeLeest said...

Thanks Lisa Marie. It never fails, every time I hear that broadcast, I get chills up my spine and tears in my eyes...then I think of Les Nessmann's Turkey Drop on WKRP and giggle a little.

librarypat said...

Thank you for an interesting post. The radio comment brings chills every time I hear it.