60 years later, Hindenburg crash still a mystery

1937 diaster at Lakehurst, N.J. marked quietly this year

May 12, 2002|By RICHARD COWEN | RICHARD COWEN,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - The German engineering marvel, the Hindenburg, crashed in flames in Lakehurst, N.J., more than 60 years ago, but the cause of the crash has never been explained.

The fire killed 35 of the 97 people on board the dirigible and one person on the ground.

Was it mechanical failure or lightning that brought down the German wonder ship in flames, debris and death? Or could the disaster have been the work of saboteurs, aiming to make Hitler look bad?

Those questions were raised, as they are every year, when the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society held its annual memorial service at the site where the largest airship ever flown crashed in flames May 6, 1937. "In years past, members of the public were allowed on the base to attend the memorial service," said Carl Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. "But Sept. 11 has changed everything."

Like the attack on the Twin Towers, the Hindenburg diaster was caught on camera as it happened.

'First media event'

"I think the Hindenburg disaster was the first media event," said Guillaume de Syon, history professor at Albright College in Reading, Pa., whose book, Zeppelin! Germany and the Airship 1900-1939, details the development of the dirigible. "To have something so gigantic reduced to nothing was very shocking. "In retrospect, it was as much a moment in media history as it was in aviation history," he said.

The disaster, as filmed through a newsreel camera, lasted 37 seconds from the moment the hydrogen-filled dirigible burst into flames until she crumbled into a smoldering heap on the airstrip. Miraculously, 62 passengers and crew members survived, many having jumped 200 feet to the ground when the airship caught fire.

Among those on the ground was a radio reporter named Herbert Morrison,who managed to keep his composure just long enough to utter one of the most famous lines in broadcasting history.

"Oh, the humanity," Morrison, obviously overcome with emotion, cried into his microphone as the Hindenburg crashed.

Morrison's famous description of the diaster as it unfolded wasn't heard until the next day; He'd come to Lakehurst from Chicago to do a story on the Hindenburg that was to be aired at a later date, and didn't have equipment for a live broadcast.

It wasn't until Morrison returned to station WLS in Chicago the next day that his famous description was broadcast around the world.

Surviving witness

Even more shocking for the public was the newsreel footage, which showed the biggest aircraft ever built being reduced to smolding embers in about a half-minute.

That newsreel footage would make it into theaters in the following weeks, and it was then that the Hindenburg became synonymous with "disaster."

Another person on the ground was John Iannaccone, now 91 and still living in Lakehurst.

One of the last surviving witnesses, he was one of 125 Navy sailors on the ground handling the steel cables that would moor the Hindenburg as it landed.

Iannaccone had plenty of experience landing the big zeppelins that the Navy had been building inside Hangar 1 at Lakehurst since 1917. Iannaccone recalled a crowd of about 1,000 who had arrived at the base that morning to watch the Hindenburg's arrival only to be sent home when the massive airship was late because of strong headwinds and bad weather. Many had not returned when the Hindenburg began its descent shortly before 7:30 that evening.

By then, the skies had turned gray and lightning was flickering all about. Iannaccone was in his position when the Hindenburg made its slow appoach. It was about 200 feet from the ground when something went wrong.

As the Hindenburg turned, "I could see flames near the stern. I kept waiting to hear an explosion, but there was none. She just kept burning," Iannaccone said during a recent tour of the site. What happened they all wondered.

Had lightning struck the Hindenburg and touched off a fire? Had someone on board pierced one of the hydrogen fuel cells to start the fire? Or had static electricity built up on the canvas skin of the zeppelin, to be touched off by a spark that ignited the fuel? To this day, no one knows for sure. But the next few hair-raising moments, John Iannaccone remembers running for his life.

"I was scared to death," he said. It looked like it was headed for me."

At 804 feet long, the Hindenburg remains the largest aircraft ever built -- even bigger than the space shuttle.

"It was the largest thing ever put in the sky by men," adds Rick Zitarossa, historian for the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. "People said that when it flew overhead, the Hindenburg was so big it would block out the sun for several minutes." In the era before commercial airlines became successful, Germany used the zeppelin to transport not only people, but to deliver mail and cargo faster and more efficiently. Crossing the Atlantic by passenger liner could take up to a week. The Hindenburg, flying up to 80 mph, could fly from Frankfort to Lakehurst in 48 hours.

A flying hotel

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