Source: New York Daily News – nydailynews.com
(Originally published by the Daily News on May 7, 1937.)
The fleet, gray Zeppelin Hindenburg, the greatest lighter-than-air craft in the world, was blown asunder and consumed by flames at 7:25 o’clock last night 300 feet above the heads of a thousand horrified spectators at the Lakehurst Naval Air Start. At 4 A.M. today, the Associated Press announced that apparently 34 of the 100 persons aboard were dead. One spectator, Allen Hagaman of Lakehurst, also was killed. Twenty-four of the 39 passengers on the liner and 42 of the crew of 61 emerged from the inferno, the Associated Press said.
But of these many were expected to succumb. Those who perished died screaming in the wreckage or plummeted from the windows of the huge dirigible when accumulated static or sparks from the engines darted a lethal electric charge into the 800,000 cubic feet of inflammable hydrogen that bore the sky liner from Germany.
For hours, the greatest confusion surrounded the precise number of casualties. The injured were scattered among hospitals in six nearby towns while reporters were locked in the press room at the naval hanger, and forbidden to circulate in quest of news.
Meanwhile all roads were blocked by state police, and the telephone service became hopelessly congested. The original estimates fixed 100 as the number of lives lost, and later the semi-official figures fluctuated wildly between 19 and 80.
Even at 4 a.m., the Associated Press which undertook to make a canvass, was unwilling to certify that its lists were absolutely accurate.
The mammoth airliner, completing her first transatlantic crossing of the 1937 season, was nosing down in a long glide toward the mooring mast when a terrific explosion ripped through the stern directly in front of the Nazi swastikas gleaming on the fish like tail of the ship.
A great sunburst of flame haloed the tail. Explosion after explosion boomed out as the fire spread through the hydrogen compartments that kept the Hindenburg afloat.
In a second, the entire ship was aflame 300 feet above the sandy field. The ground crew of 200, which already had grasped the mooring ropes dropped from the Zeppelin, fled to safety.
A great wail burst from the spectators, many of then relatives of those aboard. High aloft, above the roar of the flames, could be heard screams of agony as passengers and crew were cremated alive.
Some, with clothes flaming, jumped to certain death. Others fell beneath the ship and were crushed and burned to death under the wreckage. Some were literally blown free; some leaped to safety in the cushioning sands and staggered into the arms of rescuers with their clothing aflame.
One person, a stewardess, slid down a mooring line as flames seared her face.
Five minutes completed the work of destruction, and wrote finis to 135,000 triumphant miles of air travel by the monster Zeppelin. The nose pointed upward for long minutes, then finally collapsed. But for hours afterward, as survivors were being treated in hospitals, explosions rocked the twisted girders and smoke poured from the interior of the dirigible.
Capt. Ernst Lehmann, who piloted the ship on most of its trips a year ago, tottered dazedly from the wreckage and staggered towards an ambulance after the ship had dropped to the ground. As the flames still raced through the fabric, Navy men on the ground crew “dove into the flames like dogs after a rabbit,” in the words of State Aviation Commissioner Gill Robb Wilson.
The cause of this disaster, the fourth on American soil, was either static or sparks from the engine. F.W. von Meister, general manager in the United States for the Zeppelin line, said:
“It is possible that with the dropping of the forward lines from the bow and the stern lines to the ground, static electricity was discharged, and this caused the fire. Also, with the rear gondola engines throttled down for the mooring, sparks often are set off. With the hydrogen gas being valved simultaneously, this could cause both the fire and the explosion.”
Hans Luther, German’s Ambassador to the United States, flew to the scene in a Navy plan early today with Daniel C. Roper, Secretary of Commerce.
Over City at 4:12 P.M.
The Hindenburg poked its shining nose over Boston in early afternoon, and at 4:12 P.M. circled over Manhattan as thousands watched from below. These watchers saw passengers at the window of the giant ship, waving handkerchiefs gayly in expectation of a quick landing at Lakehurst.
To take advantage of favorable winds at dusk her commander, Capt. Max Preuss continued down the coast. At 5:30 P.M. she circles over Lakehurst. Thunder boomed and lightning crackled as a violent electrical storm enveloped the ship. Watchers on the field saw her turn away and down the coast again, cruising until 7:05 P.M.
The storm was over, but a little rain was filtering down when Capt. Preuss brought the ship over the field, nosing in from the northwest, directly into the wind. The motors were throttled down. The Zeppelin began to coast toward the mooring mast. Commander Charles E. Rosendahl, in command of the Naval Air Station, went out to the mast to supervise the mooring.
Two landing lines were dropped, one fore and one aft. The ground crew made them fast to two mooring cars on the circular track about the mast. Passengers could be seen in windows waving.
Those on the ground – including some who had planned to sail on the return voyage of the Hindenburg, which was to have started at midnight – looked up expectantly. There was a roar, flames burst out across the tail of the ship.
Rescue workers poured into the field from every part of New Jersey, but at the same time thousands of curious spectators began to stream toward Lakehurst. By 9 P.M., every road was in an impenetrable jam. Col. Mark O. Kimberling of the State Police sent out a frantic appeal over Jersey radio station:
“Stay away from Lakehurst!”
A detail of forty-five State Troopers was sent at once. Later 400 CCC workers from Camp Dix poured in. The reservation was closed. At least seventy-five doctors and nurses from Lakehurst, New York, Newark and Jersey City went to the field. One hundred enlisted men of the Army Signal Corps were stationed on guard duty. A contingent of 128 officers and men of the Coast Guard were sent from eighteen stations along the New Jersey coast.
Ambulances, carrying doctors and nurses, screamed past the gaping hangar to the smoldering mass on the field, where the girders still glowed cherry-red from heat at midnight. Tons of water from fire hoses cascaded into the wreckage.
Lakewood Hospital Full.
Paul Kimball Hospital at Lakewood was full; the facilities of all others in the vicinity were taxed. A few of the less seriously injured were taken by plane to Newark.
Spectators, the press and officials – save those of the Government – were barred from the scene of the disaster. Squads of armed Marines, sailors and Coast Guards patrolled the grounds.
German interpreters were in constant demand in the hospitals were survivors writhed in pain. Many of them were near death, the hospitals reported, and were unable to identify themselves because they could not speak English. Some were so gravely injured, among them Capt. Lehmann, that the last rites of the Catholic Church were administered.
In his agony, Lehmann moan again and again:
“Das versteh’ ich nicht!” (I don’t understand it.)
The most graphic story of the blast from a survivor was told by Herbert J. O’Laughlin, 28, of Chicago, foreign sales manager for the Oliver Farm Machinery Co., as, his hands and face swathed in bandages, he was borne into Beth Israel Hospital at Newark.
In Cabin at Time of Blast.
“I was in my cabin,” he said, “and the ship was not far off the ground. Then a light lit up the whole ship and fire seemed to break out all around me.
“The ship came down fast. I jumped when it was near the ground, and ran away. Then someone offered to treat me, and I was taken to a plane. I was feeling so bad, I didn’t know where I was. God, I feel awful.”
It was O’Loughlin’s first trip in a dirigible.
One survivor, Clifford Osbun, 37, of Park Ridge, suburb of Chicago, was standing in the dining saloon with Philip Mongon, another passenger.
“I was looking down watching the preparation to moor,” he said. “The next thing I knew, I was thrown right out of the side of the ship, and found myself on the ground, Mongon beside me.”
Osbun was cut and burned. Mongon was burned. Both were taken to the Naval Hospital.
Joseph Spahr, of Douglaston, L.I., a survivor, said:
“I heard the explosion. There was no time to think of what to do. I just jumped.”
Spahr took the Hindenburg because he missed a steamer at Havre on Monday.
Col. Morris, a member of one of Chicago’s wealthiest families, was returning to America with B.J. Dolan of Chicago.
“We were in the lounge when the explosion occurred,” Morris said from his bed at Lakehurst Hospital. “I managed to force open a window-grill and started to climb out. I went back for Dolan, but I could not find him. A member of the crew told me to jump, that the ship was afire. I jumped.”
Ground Crew Heroes.
Members of a ground crew, who had hold of the lines and were around and under the big ship, were heroes of the rescue work.
“We ran when we saw the ship was on fire,” said Harry Well-brook, member of the ground crew. “Then, when she hit the ground, we went back and tried to drag out some survivors. We got three bodies out. All of them were burned beyond recognition.”
George Wies, pilot of The News plane, was on the ground nearby when the explosion occured.
“She had headed in toward the mooring mast, and had her nose into the wind,” Wies said. “Suddenly, there was a terrific explosion. The ship burst into flames and dropped to the ground almost immediately.”
Robert J. Novins of 807 Main St., Tom River, N.J., a lawyer, was an eyewitness. He said:
“I was 250 feet away. The Hindenburg just dropped two more lines, and the ground crew had picked up the lines. I guess the hangar was about a quarter of a mile away.
“The ground crew was towing the dirigible toward the movable mooring-mast when suddenly there was a spurt of flame from the middle section of the ship, a little back from the exact center toward the rear.
“When I saw the flame, I started to run for the hangar. A second later, there was a terrific explosion, and the whole airship appeared to be enveloped in flames. The airship was about 75 feet off the ground at the time. The flaming hulk collapsed to the ground. It seemed as though some of the ground crew was caught in the falling wreck.”
Rescuers told vivid stories. One said:
“The heat was terrific. You could feel it on your body, and it rocked you, I saw nobody jump. I could hear people screaming and hollering when she hit the ground. I saw bodies on the ground, and some of the crew walking around in a daze, nude, their clothes burned off.
“I saw the radio man. I think his name is Hartmann. There wasn’t a scratch on him. He was walking in a daze. We couldn’t tell how many got out alive, but I saw about six walking.”
Joseph Capestro, a member of the ground crew, saw three men leap out of the control cabin, and one of them wore commander’s stripes. He took him to be Capt. Lehmann.
Walter Galliford, 24, said he was 200 yards from the ship when it exploded.
“The first explosion occurred aft,” he said. “Then, almost at the same time, there was another explosion. The center of the shop burst into flames.
“The stern hit the ground with a crash. I had to run as fast as I could. As I was running I heard a series of other explosions. It sounded like the oxygen chambers were exploding one by one.”
Alfred Snook, another eyewitness, gave this account of the disaster:
“I drove up to the air station about ten minutes before the explosion. I was sitting in my automobile on the south end of the field when the airship passed overhead.
“It was about 700 feet from me. I got out of my automobile and walked toward the airship. I saw a concrete platform and got on that to get a better view.
Saw Spurt of Flame.
“I saw a spurt of flame from the dirigible. It seemed to come from the rear of the ship.
“Then there was a terrible explosion and the entire airship became suddenly enveloped in flames.
“The nose of the airship was jerked upward, then the whole flaming hulk plummeted to the ground, where the wreckage was instantly enveloped in dense black smoke.”
Harry Thomas, a naval electrician who rescued one of the crew from a gondola, quoted the German as saying that “lightning struck the ship.”
Thomas knew the crew member only by his first name, Hans.
“The heat was terrific,” Thomas said. “There was a series of blasts while I was standing 150 yards away. As soon as 150 yards away. As soon as the blasts were over I came back to help in the rescue work.
“I saw a man pinned in the gondola, screaming. I helped pull the man out and carried him away. It was a German electrician that i met over here last summer. He had a broken leg and burns on his face and body.”
Saw Trouble on Ground.
Leroy Comstock Jr., a civilian, said it appeared to him that the ground crew was having trouble with the Hindenburg at the time of the explosion.
“As the ship burst into flames, the ground crew abandoned ropes because of the intense heat,” Comstock said.
He said his father saved three persons.
Herbert M. LeCompte of Lakewood said he offered to treat one of the officers, but the officer waved him toward the injured members of the crew, saying, “No, later.”
Source: New York Daily News – nydailynews.com