The German dirigible, LZ-129 Hindenburg, was set to land in Lakehurst, NJ, on May 6, 1937. As a luxury passenger airship, the Hindenburg was the largest of its kind, measuring more than 800 feet long and capable of reaching speeds near 84 mph. The Hindenburg made its first flight in 1936, part of a propaganda campaign by the Third Reich. As one of many airships that spread pro-Third Reich messages and demonstrated excellence in German engineering, the Hindenburg was also put on display by Germany at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936.
By early 1937, the Hindenburg had traversed the Atlantic Ocean numerous times. Although initially designed to be filled with helium gas, the Hindenburg took flight full of hydrogen - a choice dictated by the high price of helium or its unavailability in Germany on account of trade restrictions. Either way, when the aircraft set off toward the United States on May 3, 1937, with 97 passengers and crew on board, it carried 14 cells of flammable hydrogen gas.
The Hindenburg caught fire during its final moments in the air, a blaze that was later determined to have been caused by an electrostatic spark that ignited the hydrogen. As passengers and crew members frantically tried to escape, onlookers from the ground watched in horror as the disaster unfolded in front of them. The recollections of survivors and witnesses capture the desperation and awe of the Hindenburg tragedy, an event that resulted in 36 lives lost and changed air travel forever.
'I Don’t Remember Being In The Air… I Remember Lying In The Sand'
My mother threw me out the window. She threw my brother out. Then she threw me, but I hit something and bounced back. She caught me and threw me the second time out. My sister was just too heavy for her. My mother jumped out and fractured her pelvis. Regardless of that, she managed to walk.
Doehner didn't remember being tossed from the Hindenburg or "being in the air," but recalled "lying in the sand" after falling 50 feet to the ground.
While Doehner, his mother, and brother, Walter, lived, not all members of Doehner's family survived the Hindenburg. Both his father, Hermann, and teenage sister, Irene perished. Doehner was severely burned in the accident and was in the hospital for months.
'The Worst Was The Sea Of Flames'
Only 14 years old at the time, Werner Franz was a cabin boy on the Hindenburg. For Franz, "The worst was the sea of flames. It carried on burning for a long time. Some parts of the wreckage burned til the morning after."
Franz, who passed in 2014, had numerous duties on the Hindenburg, including washing dishes and providing coffee to the crew. When he first set sights on the Hindenburg, he "stood in front of what I thought was a gray wall. It took a while before I realized that I was standing in front of the ship."
Franz credited his wet clothes for saving his life. One week after the disaster, Franz inquired with the German air ministry if he could fly on the next zeppelin put into service. In 2004, he called his time on the Hindenburg, "the best time of my life."
'The Explosion Shook Our House And Rattled Our Windows'
Pauline Miller lived with her family in Toms River, NJ, in 1937. Roughly 8 miles from Lakehurst, the site of the Hindenburg crash, Toms River was close enough that, in Miller's recollection, "the Hindenburg explosion shook our house and rattled the windows."
She recalled her family driving "right over to the air station, and from the south fence we could see the nose of the flaming dirigible skeleton, with the figures of running people outlined by the fire.''
'It Was A Piff-Puff, Just Like Someone Would Leave The Gas On'
Robert Buchanan, a member of the crew on the ground awaiting the Hindenburg's arrival, recalled what it was like from his vantage point. Buchanan said, "It was a piff-puff, just like someone would leave the gas on and not get the flame to it."
The flame did get to the Hindenburg and Buchanan "ran quite a distance because the heat, the flame, kept shooting out ahead of me... And I really didn’t think I was going to make it, frankly.”
Ultimately what saved Buchanan, in his opinion, was the wet clothing he wore. On the day of the Hindenburg disaster, it was raining, rendering Buchanan and others "soaking wet, absolutely wringing wet."