Gasoline and hydrogen

Silent for decades, a witness to the famous air tragedy says he knows what led to the explosion.

March 05, 2000|By Ernest F. Imhoff

IT HAS BEEN 63 years since Robert E. Rutan ran for his life from beneath the exploding German airship Hindenburg in Lakehurst, N.J., and 63 years since he was told to keep quiet about why he thought it blew up. At last, he is talking publicly. His theory blames a deadly mixture of gasoline vapors, stormy weather, engine backfire and the flammable hydrogen aboard the rigid airship.

After the disaster, a U.S. inquiry suggested that a spark from static electricity ignited a leak of the rigid airships hydrogen, causing an explosion and a fire that destroyed the ship in 37 seconds. Others blamed a spark jumping from a new fabric cover to the metal framework, or sparks from a loose wire hitting the aluminum frame, or mooring lines becoming wet and conducting static electricity.

Sabotage was dismissed by Nazi and American officials.

In Ships in the Sky (1957), historian John Toland concluded that, official reports notwithstanding, the true cause remains unknown.

To Rutan, of Columbia, Md., the cause is clear: The Hindenburgs German operators accidentally caused the famous explosion on a drizzly May 6, 1937, by valving gasoline they were forbidden to have on board when landing in the United States.

I smelled the gasoline, said Rutan. Diesels are hard to start. The Germans would use a little gasoline to start the airships four diesel engines. They vented the leftover gasoline, and it became gas vapor in the heavy wet air.

A backfire ignited the gasoline vapor, and that in turn ignited the 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen. -- Thats what happened.

Part of Rutans assertion -- the Hindenburgs practice of carrying and valving gasoline -- was confirmed by a Baltimore urologist, Dr. Horst K. A. Schirmer, whose father helped design the Hindenburg. Schirmer believes, however, as did his late father, Max Schirmer, that other causes led to the disaster that killed 36 of the 96 people aboard.

Rutan is a retired Army colonel, known by some for his outspoken views on public matters. He has served on Howard County golf and police groups.

Fit and trim at age 80, he jogs, bowls and plays 54 holes of golf weekly. He tells his story from a perspective different from those of the usual armchair observers and authors. He was standing 200 feet beneath the Hindenburg when it exploded.

As a 17-year-old eyewitness, he escaped the inferno and has mementos he picked up at the scene -- a small red part of the Hindenburgs German flag with the Nazi swastika and a partly burned crewmans logbook last dated May 3, 1937.

As a Lakehurst Navy brat, he lived about 3,000 feet from the disaster site, knew some basics about airships and was acquainted with American aviators and German fliers from the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg who were entertained in his familys home.

He ran a Navy Relief Society stand in the Lakehurst hangar, selling souvenirs and answering tourists questions.

Rutans airman father, Lucius W. Rutan, died in the 1933 crash of the Navy airship U.S.S. Akron in the Atlantic Ocean.

His mother, Edna, a Navy nurse, helped treat the Hindenburgs badly burned captain, Max Pruss, the night of the disaster.

His brother Herbert died of meningitis in 1935.

His mother married Richard S. Spangler, chief yeoman at Lakehurst in 1936.

Spangler served directly under the stations commander, Charles Rosendahl, the famous American champion of lighter-than-air travel and a decorated vice admiral in World War II.

Rejected by the Naval Academy and the Navy because he was colorblind, Rutan was a merchant seaman before spending 30 years in the Army.

He made 360 parachute jumps with the 101st Airborne, 82nd Airborne and other units, fought in World War II (the Battle of the Bulge) and Korea (Pusan Perimeter), served in Special Forces and helped build bridges and roads in Vietnam with the Army Corps of Engineers.

On the fateful May 6, Rutan said, he and a buddy pulled to safety two German stewards who jumped from 30 or 40 feet. The next day, Spangler urged his stepson to tell Rosendahl his story. Dad believed me, says Rutan. On May 8, he said he told the Lakehurst Naval Air Station commander in his office that he had smelled gasoline in the air just before the explosion and thought its ignition by a backfire led to the larger blast.

In reaction, Rosendahl pounded his desk: Bobby, you are wrong, and I do not want that kind of information being spread. He also told Rutans stepfather to warn his son not to repeat the story.

Like other American airship men, Rosendahl was friendly with the Germans. He was an around-the-world guest on the airship Graf Zeppelin in 1929 and had been watching the attempted landing of the Hindenburg.

After the meeting of the three, Spangler swore his frustrated son to secrecy about his experience. A short while later, after Rutans graduation from Toms River High School, Spangler was abruptly transferred to the Philadelphia Naval Base. Young Rutan was not called to testify at the official Navy inquiry, though he witnessed the disaster.

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