While sitting on vacation in Bermuda last week, the RedState Department of History had a chance to shake away the winter blues and get a little color into its pasty skin. But today it’s back to work, with the acknowledgement of one of history’s most famous disasters.
On this date in 1936, the airship Hindenburg exploded at its mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, killing 36 people and effectively ending the days of lighter-than-air travel.
If you’re a student of history, you know the story – forced to turn back on its first attempt to dock due to a thunderstorm over the station, Captain Max Pruss turned the 804-foot airship over Manhattan Island, which caused quite a stir as residents hurried into the streets for a glimpse of the giant craft.
It was on the second approach where disaster struck. Pruss made a series of tight turns to align with the mooring mast but just before the docking, the ship sank at the stern, resulting in a craft that was out of trim.
At that point, an explosion rocked the ship and resulted in the scene most of us are familiar with – the ship collapsing into a tangled mess of steel and fire, its 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen fully involved, with ground crew running away in terror. Add to this the immortal observations of reporter Herbert Morrison (which were on radio only at the time, and later combined with film footage to create the version at this link), and you have a story that lives to this day.
Morrison’s account is noteworthy not only for its historical value but for its raw emoti0n. His utterance of “Oh, the humanity!” continues in popular language to this day, but later on in his broadcast he exhibits the raw anguish of a man who has just witnessed the deaths of 36 people:
“I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t. Listen, folks; I… I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
Amazingly, the majority of the 91 passengers and crew on board survived the crash, though the majority of survivors were severely burned. One of the survivors was Pruss himself, who rode his burning ship all the way to the ground and then picked through the wreckage searching for survivors until he was forcibly removed from the site due to his own injuries.
No exact cause for the explosion has ever been determined, with a variety of theories abounding. Some crash experts believe they know what happened but with the passage of time, no one can say with absolute certainly exactly what happened. There are, however, two main theories:
Sabotage – This is the theory expounded by Pruss himself, who noted that the ship had been struck by lightning on multiple occasions on the ship’s yearly trip to Rio De Janeiro in days past without significant damage. Various conspiracy theories through time have attempted to blame the disaster on a deliberate act, but no bomb residue was ever found or mentioned in either the German or American investigations.
One theory centered around passenger Joseph Spah, a professional acrobat and contortionist who, it was said, traveled to rarely-used areas of the ship to feed his dog and could have bent himself into position to plant an explosive in the ship’s body. Spah had been reported telling anti-Nazi jokes during the voyage which Captain Pruss, who was a member of the Nazi Party, likely did not appreciate. Spah survived the fire.
Another name mentioned in theories was rigger Erich Spehl, who died in hospital after the fire. In the 1962 book “Who Destroyed the Hindenburg”, author A.A. Hoehling named Spehl, who reportedly was an anti-Nazi along with his girlfriend, as a “potential” suspect for a variety of circumstantial and highly suspect reasons – a theory expanded upon ten years later by author Michael Mooney. Most reputable observers today regard these claims as bordering on the libelous – but Mooney’s book was later turned into the 1975 movie “The Hindenburg“. Crew members adamantly refused to believe that one of their own could have sabotaged the ship.
Static electricity – This is the theory that gets the most attention. It was noted that the Hindenburg was leaking hydrogen at the time it was approaching the mast and somehow that leaking hydrogen found its way into the ventilation shafts. As such:
“As the crew was tethering the ship, they essentially “grounded” the airship, causing the stored static electricity to discharge and ignite the hydrogen that led to the explosion.”
Most experts seem to believe this was the cause, though the exact cause of ignition is not known, and probably never will be.
The disaster at Lakehurst had a profound impact on air travel. The Nazi government of Germany forbade any further research or money spent on airship construction, over the vehement objection of Captain Pruss. He continued to advocate for airship construction until the 1950s.
Other theories included the ignition of inflammable paint on the ship, a puncture inside the ship which resulted in a spark, and a fuel leak, among others.
At the time, however, the advent of commercial air travel and Pan American Airlines was challenging the airship in any event. Pruss himself always noted that “if you want to get there quickly, take an airplane. If you want to get there in comfort, take an airship,” which was likened to an ocean liner in terms of passenger comfort.
Today, there is a memorial on the crash site in New Jersey and Hangar 1, where the Hindenburg was scheduled to dock, remains standing. It is a registered National Historic Landmark.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!