Locals Remember Hindenburg's Destruction

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Most of those who were there are gone, but 70 years later, memories of the Hindenburg crash remain strong.

It was 70 years ago May 6, 1937, that the hydrogen-filled German dirigible Hindenburg crashed in a massive ball of fire in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty-five of the 97 people on board were killed, along with a Navy crewman on the ground.

Robert Buchanan was a 17-year-old member of the ground crew that day and remembers it vividly. He says there was no explosion, just intense heat as he ran to get away. He says he was spared a severe burn because the heavy sweater he was wearing had been drenched by rain. Buchanan says he never even saw the actual crash.

A burst of flames roared across the surface of the mighty German airship only a hundred or so feet above him, and Buchanan remembers his hair getting singed as he ran for his life.

"It was a piff-puff, just like someone would leave the gas on and not get the flame to it," said Buchanan, one of the last living members of the ground crew that were helping the Hindenburg land.

"I ran quite a distance because the heat, the flame, kept shooting out ahead of me," said Buchanan, of nearby Tuckerton. "And I really didn't think I was going to make it, frankly."

The huge airship - more than three times longer than a modern Boeing 747 - was engulfed in flames and crashed in less than a minute. Camera shutters clicked, newsreel film rolled and a radio station broadcaster recorded the memorable phrase, "Oh, the humanity!"

With an 804-foot-long, fabric-covered, metal frame filled with more than 7 million cubic feet of lighter-than-air hydrogen, the Hindenburg was cutting-edge technology, "the Concorde of its day back in 1936 and '37," said Carl Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. Jablonski said the Hindenburg would later be referred to as the "Titanic of the sky."

The historical society is holding a private 70th anniversary memorial service Sunday at the crash site in Lakehurst, about 40 miles east of Philadelphia.

A swastika-emblazoned billboard for Nazi Germany, the Hindenburg offered a trip across the Atlantic that took half the time of the standard four- to five-day ocean liner trip, said Rick Zitarosa, a vice president for the historical society. Before the crash, it had carried more than 1,000 passengers on 10 successful round trips between Germany and Lakehurst in 1936, on top of additional trips to Brazil the same year.

"It was the most luxurious experience in the air, before and since," Zitarosa said.

Hindenburg passengers ate gourmet meals off fine china, drink French and German wines, and even smoke in a pressurized room.

The Zeppelin company, the German company that ran the airship service, had to use flammable hydrogen to fill the Hindenburg because of a U.S. embargo on nonflammable helium.

On May 6, 1937, more than a thousand sightseers had gathered in Lakehurst to see the Hindenburg, carrying 61 crew and 36 passengers, after its first trans-Atlantic voyage of the year. The Hindenburg was in a rush to land and take off again, because a larger load of passengers was waiting. But for hours, rainy weather had delayed the landing.

As the Hindenburg came in and started dropping lines, Associated Press photographer Murray Becker raised his camera to get a shot of the giant, silver airship as it started to land.

"He was just going to make a nice picture of a dirigible coming in. And then it blew, right when he had his finger on the shutter," recalled Marty Lederhandler, 89, an AP photographer of 66 years who was working in the wire service's New York darkroom when the Hindenburg crashed.

Zeno Wicks Jr., 86, of Louisville, Ky., was 16 when he and his father, a Goodyear engineer who was driving their car onto the base, saw a flash of fire engulf the airship.

"My father was cursing, and saying that he hoped the man he was going to meet was all right. And it turned out, he wasn't," Wicks said.

The cause of the crash is still debated. The most accepted theory is that static electricity from the day's storms led to the ignition of the hydrogen.

On the base in Lakehurst, a plaque and marker in the middle of an old airship landing area, its World War II-era pavement cracking, shows where the Hindenburg met its end.

In the distance, the massive Hanger No. 1, built by the Navy in 1921 to house airships, is used for training and storage. But since 2004, it has also housed an information center, which the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society runs in partnership with the military.

Last year, about 15,000 people visited the information center, and had a chance to see old newspaper clippings, a metal girder from the Hindenburg, and silverware blackened from the fire, according to Jablonski, the historical society president.

The memory of the crash also stays alive because it was so tragic. As with the Titanic, it's a story of human beings pushing technological limits, and failing, said Rick Archbold, a Canadian author who has written about major disasters.

For Buchanan, then a teenager working on the ground crew to earn some extra cash and get out of school for a day, the crash is something he will never forget.

"A thing like that, you pretty much, in detail, you remember everything," he said. (Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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