Hoping to catch a simple airshow, spectators watching the airship LZ 129 Hindenburg try to dock in New Jersey turned out to be witnesses to one of history’s most infamous blunders: The Hindenburg disaster.
Today, we can all be witnesses. Footage still exists of the airship’s tragic fall to Earth.
On May 3, 1937, the hydrogen airship Hindenburg departed Frankfurt carrying 97 passengers, as part of a series of trips back and forth between Europe and the United States. Three days later, the airship arrived in New Jersey, where it planned to dock at Naval Air Station Lakehurst.
Around 7:25 p.m., as the Hindenburg was attempting to land, it caught fire, most likely caused by an electrostatic discharge (otherwise known as static electricity) that ignited leaking hydrogen.
Two tanks then burst from the airship’s hull, causing the ship’s bow to tip upwards. Because there was still fuel in the bow, jets of flame continued to spout from the Hindenburg’s tail. After the Hindenburg crashed to the ground, the hull burned up within seconds and the bow collapsed as well.
Because another Zeppelin had earlier completed a newsworthy transatlantic passenger flight, the Hindenburg’s arrival in New Jersey drew a large number of journalists to the landing site.
Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness radio report is the most famous coverage of the event, even though it was not broadcast live, but instead heard later that day after the recording was shipped to Chicago.
Morrison introduced the phrase “Oh, the humanity!” into the popular lexicon as he watched the fiery scene unfold, thinking that everyone on board had perished. In fact, “only” 35 of the 97 people on board died.
Nevertheless, the Hindenburg disaster so traumatized the public that it marked the end of the airship craze.
Despite the evidence that the Hindenburg disaster was a poorly timed accident, conspiracy theories that the explosion was the result of Nazi sabotage still survive to this day.
Next, read the story of the USS Akron, the other airship that changed history. Then, see photos from the San Franciso earthquake of 1906 of 1906. Finally, see a photo of the world’s largest aircraft, the Airlander 10.