The May 1937 explosion of the German airship Hindenburg is one of the most memorable disasters of the twentieth century, outshining other more serious and costly catastrophes. Of the ninety-seven passengers and crew on board, thirty-six lost their lives in the conflagration. Images of its fiery denouement would make their way through the pop culture pantheon, onto T-shirts and album covers (most famously, the eponymous debut of Led Zeppelin), while the mystery of the Hindenburg's final flight would inspire a feature film (1975) and numerous documentaries. Various theories on the cause of the explosion blame a hydrogen leak, electrostatic discharges in the air igniting the ship's highly flammable fabric covering, or an anti-Nazi act of sabotage. A NASA scientist claimed to have resolved the dispute in favor of the flammable covering thesis in 1997, but doubters remained. "For reasons which are not clear to me even now, however," wrote Michael Mooney in his history of the flight, "the Hindenburg disaster seemed to sear the memory of everyone even remotely connected to it." Perhaps it was a conjunction of the times, the fragile peace preceding World War II, and the spectacular manner of the airship's end.
Perhaps it was because the Hindenburg was destroyed in direct view of the assembled press, with cameras clicking and newsreel film rolling and radio announcers squawking excitedly into their microphones, their coverage competing with the screams of the dying. "Here it comes, ladies and gentlemen, and what a sight it is, a thrilling one, a marvelous sight," exclaimed radio announcer Herb Morrison for the benefit of his listeners in Chicago as the Hindenburg prepared to dock over a Lakehurst, New Jersey, airfield. Only moments later his tenor changed abruptly from enthusiasm to abject terror. "It's burst into flames," cried the horror-stricken reporter, "It is burning, bursting into flames and is falling … Oh! This is one of the worst … Oh! It's a terrific sight … Oh! … and all the humanity!" Morrison broke down, finding himself unable to continue.
Spectators on the ground claimed they saw a small explosion toward the stern followed by an enormous secondary burst. The lighter-than-air Hindenburg plummeted toward earth, passengers leaping from the observation platform as it descended. Others managed to flee from the wreckage once it came to rest on the airfield—some parting the white-hot aluminum superstructure with bare hands. The unlucky were trapped in the burning superstructure or were mortally wounded in escaping.
Zeppelin travel had attracted those who disliked sea travel, those for whom time was of the essence, and a great many who were attracted by the sheer novelty of airships. Thus far, zeppelins had provided safe, fast transport between the Americas and Germany for close to twenty years. (Only Germany had managed to master the art of the zeppelin, with French and English efforts ending in failure.) Having served a year of regular flights between Germany and New York, the Hindenburg, 804 feet long with a cruising speed of 78 miles per hour, was the largest and most advanced of the airships, providing comfortable, luxurious passage in a fraction of the time it would take the fastest steamer to traverse the Atlantic.
According to the dramatic sabotage legend, a letter had arrived at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., the day before the flight warning of a saboteur among the paying passengers. As a result, security was unusually thorough, and Captain Ernst Lehmann, the newly appointed director of the Zeppelin Company (his predecessor having resigned in disgrace), and two SS officials scrutinized the passengers. By journey's end, Captain Lehmann was convinced the letter was a figment of SS paranoia. Nothing of import had transpired. He did not know that Erich Spehl, a young rigger on the ship whose job it was to tend to the bags of highly flammable hydrogen within the aluminum superstructure, had surreptitiously planted a bomb within Gas Cell IV long before the ship had left its hangar. It was left to Spehl to rip open the gas bag shortly before landing and set the timer on his rudimentary bomb. It was not Spehl's intention to kill anyone: the innocent farm lad was motivated to perform his "act of genius" by his older, sophisticated girlfriend under whose tutelage Spehl had grown violently opposed to the Nazi regime. As the Hindenburg circled to position itself for landing, Erich Spehl slit the gas cell and set the bomb's timer for two hours, long after the passengers and crew should have disembarked. Unfortunately, the timer malfunctioned, or in his haste, he set it wrong. The Hindenburg was just preparing to dock when the bomb exploded, burning the silk bag and allowing air to rush in and mix with the highly flammable hydrogen.
Whether the explosion was caused by such a saboteur or not, a more dramatic black eye for the Nazi regime could scarcely have been planned. The disaster was featured in newsreels within the week, and it made a phenomenal spectacle, the bright white flames leaping into the dark sky as the silhouetted bulk of the zeppelin descended gracefully toward the earth. The German government, hoping to avoid an international incident, ascribed the disaster to "an act of God." A binational commission was convened, but the Germans had been expressly warned not to find any evidence of sabotage. The FBI, in turn, played along, but the commission met nightly, and convictions were aired off the record. The decision to sweep the mess under the rug abruptly brought any further experiments with passenger airships to an end.
As Reported by The New York Times: Great Moments of the Century: Catastrophes. New York, Arno Press, 1976.
Greystone Communications. The Hindenburg (video). New York, A & E Home Video, 1996.
Hoehling, A. A. Who Destroyed the Hindenburg? Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1962.
Mooney, Michael M. The Hindenburg. New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972.
Stacey, Thomas. The Hindenburg. San Diego, Lucent Books, 1990.