It’s been 80 years since the infamous Hindenburg disaster, as the huge dirigible attempted to land at New Jersey’s Lakehurst Naval Air Station at the end of its trip from Germany.
Thanks to the AP, the sole remaining survivor of that night recounts what happened, as well as, republishes its original coverage reporting the disaster.
Thunderstorms and wind had delayed the Hindenburg’s arrival in New Jersey from Germany on May 6, 1937. The father of 8-year-old Werner Doehner headed to his cabin after using his movie camera to shoot some scenes of Lakehurst Naval Air Station from the airship’s dining room.
“We didn’t see him again,” recalled Doehner, now 88 and the only person left of the 62 passengers and crew who survived the fire that killed his father, sister and 34 other souls 80 years ago Saturday.
Doehner and his parents, older brother and sister were returning from a vacation in Germany and planned to travel on the 804-foot-long Hindenburg to Lakehurst, then fly to Newark and board a train in nearby New York City to take them home to Mexico City, where Doehner’s father was a pharmaceutical executive.
The children would have preferred the decks and public rooms of an ocean liner because space was tight on the airship, Doehner said in a rare telephone interview this week with The Associated Press from his home in Parachute, Colorado.
Their mother brought games to keep the children busy. They toured the control car and the catwalks inside the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg. They could see an ice field as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he remembered.
As the Hindenburg arrived at its destination, flames began to flicker on top of the ship.
Hydrogen, exposed to air, fueled an inferno. The front section of the Hindenburg pitched up and the back section pitched down.
“Suddenly the air was on fire,” Doehner said.
“We were close to a window, and my mother took my brother and threw him out. She grabbed me and fell back and then threw me out,” he said.
“She tried to get my sister, but she was too heavy, and my mother decided to get out by the time the zeppelin was nearly on the ground.”
His mother had broken her hip.
“I remember lying on the ground, and my brother told me to get up and to get out of there.” Their mother joined them and asked a steward to get her daughter, whom he carried out of the burning wreckage.
A bus took the survivors to an infirmary, where, Doehner said, a nurse gave him a needle to burst his blisters.
From there, the family was taken to Point Pleasant Hospital. Doehner had burns to his face, both hands and down his right leg from the knee. His mother had burns to her face, both legs and both hands. His brother had several burns on his face and right hand.
His sister died early in the morning.
He would remain in the hospital for three months before going to a hospital in New York City in August for skin grafts. He was discharged in January, and the boy, a German speaker, had learned some English.
“Burns take a long time to heal,” he said.
The family returned to Mexico City, where funerals were held for Doehner’s father and sister, who were among the 35 fatalities of the 97 passengers and crew aboard the airship. A worker on the ground also died.
The U.S. Commerce Department determined the accident was caused by a leak of the hydrogen that kept the airship aloft. It mixed with air, causing a fire. “The theory that a brush discharge ignited such mixture appears most probable,” the department’s report said.
Eight decades later, Doehner is the only one left to remember what it was like on the Hindenburg that night. A ceremony commemorating the disaster will take place at the crash site Saturday night.
“Only two others who ever flew on the airship are alive,” said Carl Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. “But they weren’t on the last flight.”
Interest in the disaster remains strong as ever, Jablonski said.
“The internet and social media has exposed and attracted the interest of a younger generation,” he said.
The Hindenburg, Doehner said, is “something you don’t forget.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: On May 6, 1937, the German airship Hindenburg burst into flames at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. Thirty-five people aboard and one person on the ground died. Ahead of Saturday’s 80th anniversary, the AP is republishing a version of its original coverage.
LAKEHURST, N.J. (AP) — Its silvery bulk shattered by a terrific explosion, the German air liner Hindenburg plunged in flames at the United States Naval air station tonight, with indications that 34 of the 100 aboard and one spectator perished.
As minor explosions continued to tear its twisted aluminum skeleton and ribboned fabric for hours afterward, an official announcement listed as having survived 24 of 39 passengers aboard and 42 out of the 61 members of the crew, thus leaving a total of 34 unaccounted for. Twenty-four bodies were counted in two places, thirteen at the naval sick bay and eleven in the great hangar itself.
Timothy W. Margerum of Lakewood said there were more corpses in the naval station’s garage which had been hurriedly transformed into a morgue. Many of the dead were horribly burned by the oil fed flames. Margerum reported others were dying. Hospitals for miles around were filled with the injured.
The navy department in Washington said it was advised at least 48 persons were killed.
An explosion of the No. 2 gas cell toward the stern of the ship was named as the cause of the disaster by State Aviation Commissioner Gill Robb Wilson, who called the blast “strange.” The highly inflammable hydrogen gas billowed into fierce flame as the explosion plummeted the ship to the air field.
Ground spectators said crew members in the stern of the ship “never had a chance” to escape.
The disaster struck without the least warning. The ship had angled its blunt nose toward the mooring mast, the spider-like landing lines had been snaked down and the ground crew had grasped the ropes from the nose, when the explosion roared out, scattering ground crew and spectators like frightened sheep.
The passengers, who were waving gayly a minute before from the observation windows, were so stunned they could not describe late what happened. Some jumped to the sandy landing field along with members of the crew. Others seemed to have been pitched from the careening skyliner as it made its death plunge.
The heat drove back would-be rescuers, so it could not be determined for how many the Hindenburg made a burning tomb. Fire departments from nearby communities converged on the field and soon had streams of water playing on the broken air liner. The flames still enveloped the outline of the ship, apparently feeding on the fuel oil supply with the Hindenburg carried for its Diesel engines.
Somewhere in the glowing furnace were the two dogs, 340 pounds of mail, and the ton of baggage which it had aboard.
Thirty-one survivors were accounted for in hospitals and other places in the Lakehurst area at 10:45 p.m.
F.W. Von Meister, vice president of the American Zeppelin Transport company, the general United States agents for the German Zeppelin Transport company, the Hindenburg’s owners, said there were two possible causes for the explosions.
First he listed the rainy condition which prevailed at the naval air station when the landing was attempted. The ship cruised around over the field for an hour to ride out a rainstorm and nosed down while rain still was falling.
The rainy condition, Von Meister said, would make for static electricity which might have sparked when the landing ropes were dropped, and thus might have touched off the highly explosive hydrogen gas which gave the long silver ship its lifting power.
The second theory Von Meister advanced was that a spark flew from one of the engines when they were throttled down for the landing. The ship had been valving hydrogen preparatory to landing, and he theorized some of the gas might have gathered in a pocket under the tail surface and detonated.
Some authorities scouted the theory that the explosion could have been caused by the ignition of hydrogen inside the gas cells. They said a mixture of 20 percent free air with hydrogen would be necessary to cause an explosion, indicating the first blast must have occurred outside one of the gas cells.
Aeronautical experts said the only way they could explain an explosion inside the ship would be that free hydrogen had in some way escaped and was lying in the stern of the ship where it was accidentally ignited.
Authorities said there were two explosions in the air, followed by several lesser ones after the stricken ship settled on the ground. The lesser explosions were believed due to detonating fuel tanks. The blasts ripped the ship as if she were made of paper.
The first two sent flames shooting high into the evening sky, but men standing under the ship reported they felt virtually no concussion. The explosion’s force, however, was felt a little farther away from the ship, those in the ring of spectators said.
Capt. Ernst Lehmann, who piloted the ship on most of its trip a year ago, tottered dazedly from the wreckage and staggered toward an ambulance.
Sailors Dive Into Flames.
As the flames raced forward along the fabric toward the passengers” lounge and the control car the navy men of the ground crew “dove into the flames like dogs after rabbit,” Commissioner Wilson said in voicing high praise of the rescue heroism.
The force of the explosion hurled some of the passengers from the fabric envelope of the ship as it fell, and threw them stunned into the landing field.
Wilson declared he considered the explosion’s cause unexplained, and added: “I repeat, there was something strange that caused this tragedy.”
“Those in the belly of the ship,” he said, “absolutely had no chance.”
The tail, with its swastika emblems of Nazi Germany, sagged immediately after the first rending explosion. The nose hung motionless for a moment in the air, then crashed earthward, the split sections telescoped as they fell. Pieces of the silvery fabric fluttered down, some in flames.
Ground crew members estimated the ship’s altitude at a few hundred feet when the disaster broke.
Even as the flames were consuming the dirigible, passengers were arriving at the air station with luggage for the return trip. The schedule called for a rapid turnabout this time, with departure toward midnight tonight. It was to be a gay voyage over the Atlantic, as many of the passengers who took bookings were bound for the round of coronation festivities in London next week.
“Run for your lives” was the cry that scattered spectators when the dirigible took her flaming death plunge. The navy men of the ground crew who stood their ground took one badly burned man from the control car, up in the nose of the ship, soon after that section struck. This showed the speed with which the fire had raced down the envelope from the stern.
The screams and cries of injured in agony were “terrible,” the hardened sailors and marines who did the rescue work reported. The clothing was completely burned off one man. Another, blown through the envelope, was found moaning near the smashed airship.
The survivors and rescue workers told of the terrific heat which followed the explosion and the surge of fire.
Some of spectators and ground crew men said they saw figures, apparently members of the crew, leap from the control car as it neared the ground. When the stern settled it yielded badly burned bodies, for here the fire was the worst at first.
Storms and headwinds at sea had delayed the Hindenburg on her first trip of the season. Originally she was scheduled to nose down to a landing at 6 a.m. today. The plan was for her refuel speedily and take off at 10 p.m.
The ship had been delayed before by unfavorable weather and there was no hint of anything untoward in the air as she glided in gracefully toward dusk after cruising over New Jersey for an hour to wait for the most favorable landing time — the evening.
The ground crew moved out on to the vast tree bordered field as they had done so many times before when the ship came to port. The comings and goings of the ship had become so routine that a comparatively small crowd of spectators had gathered to watch her.
Capt. Max Pruss had been maneuvering the ship to make certain to get those favorable conditions. He had stayed aloft over the field for over an hour to ride out the rainstorm that whipped the landing field. Then he nosed her down.
Dr. Hugo Eckener, famous airship commander, and Capt. Ernst A. Lehmann were skippers of the Hindenburg last year. Capt. Pruss, assuming command for the first time on this trip, has worked in close cooperation with these two veterans. He traveled with both the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg last year and was on the Graf on its trips to the Arctic, Northern Africa, and around the world.
Pruss also was aboard the old Los Angeles, decommissioned airship of the United States navy, when it was brought to the United States in 294, and he spent five months at Lakewood as an instructor in 1924-’25.
The Zeppelin was to have made 18 round trips this year and was to have cut its time at Lakehurst to one day on each trip. Speedier reservicing operations were worked out during the off season by Lieutenant Commander C.V.S. Knox, assembly and repair officer at the naval air station, and technicians of the oil company which supplied the ship with its hydrogen lifting gas and Diesel fuel oil.
Two stewards and a little cabin boy, who refused to give their names, escaped. They said the explosion came from the stern of the ship and they saved themselves by jumping from the windows.
Harry Wellbrook of Toms River, a member of the ground crew directly under the stern waiting for the landing lines to be thrown, said he and the men in the crew ran for their lives to keep away from the blazing wreckage.
He said “We got out three bodies from the stern of the ship, all burned beyond recognition.”
“One of the men was so horribly burned that the features were not recognizable. Only by the fact that he was still breathing could we tell he was alive. The clothing on all of these bodies was burned to cinders and the skin scorched off.”
Rescue work was being conducted by an army detail from Philadelphia which was on the ground for an emergency.
Screams came from the wreckage. Rescue workers said the anguished cries were “terrible.”
One rescue worker said he saw about a dozen persons pulled out of the wreckage. Some were burned badly, others not.
At 7:40 p.m. the wreckage was still blazing. Airplanes and trucks maintained a steady traffic from the official buildings to the wreck.
Joseph Capestro, a member of the ground crew, said he saw three men leap out of the control cabin, and one of them wore commander’s stripes. He took him to be Commander Lehmann.
Official sources said as far as was known, none of the United States navy officers, or civilian ground crew lost their lives.
Herbert M. LeCompte, of Lakewood, said he treated one of the survivors who was so badly burned he was unable to talk.
LeCompte said he could tell from a few mumbled words that the man could speak English but was unable to give any coherent account of the disaster.
The AP Corporate Archives contributed to this report.