The giant airship Hindenburg hovered virtually motionless less than 250 feet above the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ, having all but completed her first American flight of the 1937 season. Delayed more than half a day by headwinds and thunderstorms, the Hindenburg’s captain was taking advantage of a break in the weather, trying to land the German ship before the next storm front arrived over Lakehurst.
The ship’s 36 passengers tried to scan the crowd gathered near the gigantic Zeppelin hangar to see if they could recognize family and friends. A ground crew of 230 men was securing the ship’s landing ropes, and the Hindenburg would shortly be connected up to the 75-foot mooring mast, safe and sound after yet another successful trip across the North Atlantic.
In the crew’s mess, built up inside the Hindenburg’s aluminum-framed hull just below the passenger accommodations, 14-year-old Werner Franz was putting away stacks of clean dishes. Werner was the ship’s cabin boy, and as he worked he was fighting off disappointment. First and foremost, he had learned that he wasn’t going to have the opportunity to go into New York while the ship was docked at Lakehurst this time. Werner had been hired on as cabin boy the previous October, and had had the opportunity to make the Hindenburg’s final scheduled American flight of 1936. While the ship was being resupplied at Lakehurst after that flight, Werner and a couple of his crewmates had gone to New York and seen a show at one of the city’s many cinemas. Werner had hoped to be able to do this again this trip, but Chief Steward Kubis had told him that there wouldn’t be time.
The Hindenburg was more than 12 hours behind schedule, and was scheduled to carry a full load of 70 passengers back to Europe in time for the coronation of England’s George VI on May 12, which was now less than 5 days away. It was now almost 7:30 p.m. on May 6, and the ship was now scheduled to refuel and resupply in time for a return sailing at midnight. There simply wouldn’t be time for Werner or any of the crew to leave the Lakehurst base.
In addition, the captain had called back to the crew’s mess about five minutes before and ordered six or seven of the crew to take positions in the ship’s bow, so as to physically counteract some persistent tail-heaviness in preparation for landing. Werner had wanted to join them, since his favorite spot in the entire ship from which to watch the ship land was the large windows up near the bow, but unfortunately he still had kitchen duties to finish. The crew’s mess was now virtually empty, and Werner was left to finish stacking his plates.
Meanwhile, the men who had clambered forward along the narrow keel towards the bow were just settling into their positions. One of Werner’s friends, a young, off-duty cook named Alfred Grözinger, found a spot alongside the keel between the ship’s control car and the bow, just above a pair of large triangular air vents through which he intended to watch the landing crew below securing the ship to the mooring mast. Most of the rest of the men found spots further forward, alongside the stairway that curved its way up to a shelf at the very nose of the ship, where four other crewmen were already busy lowering the steel cable that would be connected to a winch on the mooring mast, drawing the Hindenburg in almost as if it were a giant fish.
Nearly a sixth of a mile away, in the very tail of the ship, four other crewmembers were preparing for their own mooring duties. Gas cell rigger Hans Freund was at the very back of the keel walkway, just above the huge lower fin, lowering the aft landing lines. As he pulled one of the cables up out of its storage space down in the fin, it snagged on a girder. He called down into the fin for help. About 30 feet below him, the ship’s chief engineer, Rudolf Sauter, and one of the ship’s helmsmen, Helmut Lau, were watching the landing maneuvers below from a row of portholes in the side of the fin. Lau answered Freund’s call, and climbed a ladder about halfway up the port side of the fin until he reached the point where the rope had tangled, and proceeded to work it loose with his free hand.
Above Lau’s head, and above Freund’s, the ship’s massive hydrogen cells billowed. The Hindenburg, as was the case with all Zeppelins, was essentially designed as a fabric-covered duralumin cage surrounding a series of individual bags of lifting gas. In the case of the Hindenburg, it was separated into sixteen separate “bays,” each containing a roughly donut-shaped, latex-impregnated, linen gas cell and separated from the other bays by a cotton bulkhead. An axial girder containing a catwalk tunneled through each cell, from the bow back to the cruciform structure at the front of the tail assembly, allowing the gas cell riggers to check gas cell pressure, and to inspect the valves which allowed the command crew to vent gas in preparation for landing. The cells hung down on either side of the axial catwalk, allowing them to be removed and replaced when necessary.
Helmut Lau, having freed the rope for Freund, paused for a moment and watched to make sure the rope didn’t tangle a second time. Twelve days later, on May 18, Lau described to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Board of Inquiry what happened next:
I heard over me a muffled detonation and looked up and saw from the starboard side down inside the gas cell a bright reflection on the front bulkhead of cell No. 4. The gas cell was approximately at the line that I have indicated on Exhibit 10.
I therefore could see from there to the point that I am indicating. I could see from my position at this point to approximately the position indicated. Here and here I saw no fire at first. I saw it on the front side of cell 4. The bright reflection in the cell was inside. I saw it through the cell. It was at first red and yellow and there was smoke in it. The cell did not burst on the lower side. The cell suddenly disappeared by the heat.
The fire proceeded further down and then it got air. The flame became very bright and the fire rose up to the side, more to the starboard side, as I remember seeing it, and I saw that with the flame aluminum parts and fabric parts were thrown up.
In that same moment the forward cell and the back cell of cell 4 also caught fire, cell 3 and cell 5. At that time parts of girders, molten aluminum and fabric parts started to tumble down from the top. The whole thing only lasted a fraction of a second.
As spectators on the ground looked on in horror as a gigantic ball of fire burst from the Hindenburg’s tail, Helmut Lau leapt for the bottom of the tail fin, with Hans Freund right behind him.
A tremendous jolt ran through the rest of the ship, and most aboard were momentarily puzzled as to what it might be. Many of the crew thought that a landing rope had broken. Far up in the front of the ship, Alfred Grözinger felt a heavy push from aft, then looked up above him and saw fire already burning its way forward along the axial catwalk. The ship then took a steep tilt aft as the tail dropped to the ground, and all Grözinger could do was to grab hold of a girder and hang on for dear life.
Back in the crew’s mess, Werner Franz had just put a stack of plates in one of the cupboards when the ship suddenly angled down by the stern, dumping the contents of the cupboard in a crashing heap on the floor. Wondering what had happened, Werner leapt for the door to the keel walkway, and what he saw out there filled him with abject terror: a giant fireball was coming up the keel, looking as though it were reaching out for him. He turned around to see if he could see anyone else, but there was nobody. He clung to the wires of the keel walkway looking for an escape route when suddenly a water tank over his head burst open, soaking him from head to foot. Thus protected from the fire which was beginning to burn around him, Werner started looking for a way out.
Meanwhile, the Hindenburg had hit the ground and was standing on its tail at about a 45-degree angle. The fire had burned its way up the axial catwalk through the center of the ship, finally shooting out of the bow like a blowtorch. Alfred Grözinger was just far enough aft of the bow to remain out of the path of the fire, as was an off-duty helmsman named Kurt Bauer, but the rest of the men stationed in the nose of the ship were caught in a firestorm.
Several chose to leap to their deaths rather than burn. The others remained inside the ship as the bow began to descend towards the ground. Once it neared the ground, Grözinger, Bauer, and an electrician named Josef Leibrecht managed to get clear of the wreckage and run to safety. In Grözinger’s case, he hung out of the air vent he’d been standing near, and dropped to the ground when he was about 15 feet up. He picked himself up and ran for his life, with the ship’s white-hot frame crashing to the ground just a few paces behind him. While Leibrecht was badly burnt and ended up bearing the scars of that night for the rest of his life, Grözinger, and Bauer escaped almost completely unharmed. Of the other nine men in the ship’s bow, only a few were pulled from the wreckage alive, and none lived through the night.
Back in the tail section, Helmut Lau, Hans Freund, Chief Sauter, and a mechanic named Richard Kollmer were able to climb out through a hatch on the side of the fin once the stern collapsed on the ground. Miraculously, given their proximity to the apparent source of the fire, all four men managed to escape with only superficial injuries.
Werner Franz had finally spotted a service hatch a few feet in front of him. As the bow began to drop and the angle lessened, Werner crawled to the hatch and kicked it open. As the ship neared the ground, he dropped through the hatch and landed in the sandy soil below. He instinctively ran into the wind, and was able to get out from under the ship’s hull just before it crashed to the ground. He was, as he later said, “Wet… but unhurt.” As he looked behind him, though, he could see that the airship on which he’d so proudly served had been reduced to a pile of twisted metal. It had taken, from the first burst of flame at the tail of the ship to the collapse of the forward section on the ground, a mere 32 seconds.
In the end, 62 of the 97 passengers and crew aboard the Hindenburg survived the fire. 13 passengers, 22 members of the crew, and one civilian member of the ground crew perished. Among those who survived, it seemed that they either were badly burned, or else (like Werner Franz) made it out almost completely unharmed.
Several days after the fire, the members of the crew who weren’t hospitalized gathered together outside of the Officers’ Mess at the Lakehurst airbase to pose for a group photo. Since the clothes they’d “landed” in were unusable, most of the crew wore khaki uniforms borrowed from the military base, though some of the command crew were able to borrow naval uniforms with the appropriate badge of rank.
Werner Franz, who had been staying with the family of Anton Heinen, a former German Zeppelin test pilot now employed by the U.S. Navy, wore the clothes the Heinens had bought for him at Wanamaker’s when they took him into New York a day or two after the fire. It turned out that Werner had gotten to visit New York this trip after all. The photo of the crew appeared in newspapers over the next few days, and showed a group of men still in shock at what had happened, but also clearly happy to still be alive.
A couple of weeks later, once they’d testified before the Board of Inquiry, the surviving crew of the Hindenburg began to return to Germany on steamships… suddenly having to cope with the one inconvenience of transatlantic travel which had been nonexistent on passenger Zeppelins such as the Hindenburg: seasickness. This made it all the more unfortunate that no Zeppelin ever carried a paying passenger again after the Hindenburg fire. The craft were simply now uninsurable, though plenty were still anxious to reserve tickets in the event that transatlantic Zeppelin service were to resume.
Ultimately, no definitive cause for the disaster was ever found. Some, including Commander Charles E. Rosendahl, who had been commander of the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst on the night of the disaster, and the Hindenburg’s commander Captain Max Pruss, were convinced that the fire had to have been caused by sabotage. Many years later, a sabotage theory came out that pointed the finger at a young crewman who died in the fire and who had no immediate family to speak out for him. This theory, however, turned out to be largely the concoction of the son of one of the crew survivors, and was both baseless in substance and eminently sleazy in its orchestration.
The most likely theory was that leaking hydrogen, either from a torn gas cell or a stuck gas valve, was ignited by the static electricity that was observed flickering along the top of the Hindenburg shortly before the fire broke out. Had the leak been near the axial catwalk in the center of the ship, it could easily have looked and burned the way Helmut Lau had testified he’d seen the fire burning.
In the late 1990s, a NASA hydrogen specialist named Addison Bain set out to prove that the fire was the result not of the hydrogen igniting, but rather the ignition of the aluminum-doped fabric that covered the ship. The key, Bain said, was the fact that the silver paint on the ship’s hull was almost identical in chemical composition to the fuel used in the solid rocket boosters of the Space Shuttle. Subsequent to this, Bain’s theory was picked up by the popular press as being “THE answer, case closed,” although the fact of the matter was that in all too many cases he’d cherry-picked evidence to fit his predetermined conclusion and his theory was, according to most airship historians, full of holes.
Within the past year, the combined efforts of Dr. Alex Dessler, Donald Overs, and William Appleby have shown that many of Bain’s core assumptions and conclusions do not bear up to scientific analysis. We are then, in effect, back to square one, and will likely never know what exactly downed the Hindenburg all those years ago.
Hindenburg Crew Survivors, photographed at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, May 10, 1937.
1.) Max Hennerberg (steward); 2.) Fritz Deeg (steward); 3.) Max Zabel (navigator); 4.) Jonny Dörflein (mechanic); 5.) Severin Klein (steward); 6.) Eduard Boëtius (navigator); 7.) Egon Schweikardt (radio operator); 8.) Xaver Maier (head cook); 9.) Werner Franz (cabin boy); 10.) Rudolf Sauter (chief engineer); 11.) Wilhelm Balla (steward); 12.) Eugen Nunnenmacher (steward); 13.) Albert Stöffler (pastry chef); 14.) Wilhelm Steeb (mechanic trainee); 15.) Heinrich Kubis (chief steward); 16.) Captain Heinrich Bauer (watch officer); 17.) Kurt Bauer (elevatorman); 18.) Eugen Schäuble (engineering officer); 19.) Helmut Lau (helmsman); 20.) Alfred Grözinger (cook); 21.) German Zettel (chief mechanic)
Mouseover for key
Sixty-seven years after the Hindenburg fire, Werner Franz returned to Lakehurst. It wasn’t his first visit since 1937. He had been back several other times over the years for various reasons, including the filming of a TV documentary in 1999. This time, he was the guest of Bob Haltom, an aviation art dealer from Texas. They came to Lakehurst for the dedication of the new Navy Lakehurst Information Center, a museum dedicated to the history of the Lakehurst base, which covers a large chunk of airship history, including the Hindenburg accident.
I was there, as well. Having spent some 25 years or more studying the history of Zeppelins, and in particular the Hindenburg, I wanted to be there for the dedication of a museum that I knew had itself taken at least a quarter of a century of aborted attempts before it was finally made a reality. Plus, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet and possibly speak with Werner Franz, who was by then the last living Hindenburg crew survivor.
At the dedication ceremony for the museum Werner, now an 82-year-old man, was in attendance with his son, Andreas. As one might expect, Werner was mobbed throughout the day by people wanting him to sign everything under the sun. He graciously signed postcards, programs, books, and all manner of items while his son Andreas translated for him. Not wanting to simply add to the crowd, I chose to wait until later to introduce myself.
I had brought with me a copy of the group photo in front of the Officers’ Mess from 1937, having recently procured an old newswire print of it on eBay. I’d put the print in a little wooden frame, and my hope was that I’d have an opportunity to give it to Werner as a gift. At the banquet that night, there was the expected amount of “speechifying” going on and I saw that Werner, who could understand virtually none of it, was sitting back at his table looking distinctly bored.
I went over and introduced myself (in my rusty old German) and said that I had a gift I’d like to give him. His eyes completely lit up when I showed him the photo. He said that he remembered the picture being taken, but that he’d never seen a copy. He immediately started talking about various little details of that moment a few days after the disaster. He told me about the borrowed uniforms and about the Heinens taking him into New York to buy new clothes, and he also remembered almost everyone in the photo. I had done some identification work on the photo myself, and when he’d point to a face that he didn’t recognize, I’d suggest a name and he’d immediately snap his fingers and say that yes, that was exactly who it was.
Then Werner looked over at me with a slightly puzzled look on his face, pointed to the photo and asked, “Ist das für mich?” I smiled and told him that yes, it was a gift for him. Well, this relatively stoic old German gentleman suddenly turned to me and gave me a huge bear hug. I was quite touched by that, and was glad that my little gesture made him so happy. I think he also was pleased at the fact that he finally had somebody there with whom he could speak German, as most people he’d met that weekend could only speak to him in English.
We chatted a good bit more that evening, and he told me a lot of other little anecdotes about his Hindenburg experiences. He pointed out that as disappointed as he was that he had to finish his duties in the crew’s mess and could not accompany the rest of the men to the bow of the ship that night in 1937, that this ended up saving his life, as he would almost certainly have burned to death up there. He also said that when he and a group of his comrades returned to Germany by steamer a couple weeks after the disaster, they arrived in Bremerhaven on May 22—which, somebody at the dock had to remind him, was his 15th birthday.
To myself and others, he spoke of how he’d hoped to eventually become a helmsman on the Hindenburg, and eventually to become a Zeppelin captain. He reminisced about climbing down into the Hindenburg’s control car at all hours carrying hot thermoses of coffee for the command crew; about climbing out of the ship’s hull and down into the egg-shaped engine gondolas; about the look of horror on Captain Heinrich Bauer’s face when once Werner missed a step on the keel catwalk and almost fell through the thin fabric cover.
One gentleman asked, “Werner, what was your most unforgettable moment of Zeppelin life, other than May 6, 1937?” Werner thought for a moment, nodded, and spoke of one particular flight to South America when the Hindenburg and her sister ship Graf Zeppelin met in mid-ocean. The two massive Zeppelins circled one another like porpoises, a sight which was seen by nobody other than the ships’ crew and their astounded, elated passengers. “That moment,” Werner said, “was just for us.”
Copyright 2005, Patrick Russell
Illustration: Copyright 2005, Chris Bishop
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