The catastrophe was captured live on radio: the quick and fiery end to the Zeppelin airship the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on this day in 1937. The media event has made it part of the collective memory.
Herbert Morrison entered the history books at 7:20 p.m. US East Coast time. Then an unknown radio reporter for a Chicago broadcaster, Morrison wanted to use the Hindenburg landing for a recording experiment. With the Hindenburg hovering at an altitude of 130 meters (430 feet), he began his routine reporting. Something happened suddenly and he called to his sound engineer, Charlie Nehlsen: "Get this, Charlie. Get this! It's sinking. It's crashing!"
The recording, and the moving images with them, went around the world. The 36 deaths were no comparison to the Titanic's 1,500 in 1912, but it was capturing the catastrophe on camera that was new and shocking.
Storms in the area around Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey that afternoon delayed the Hindenburg's landing. Everything else was proceeding normally. The giant airship dropped its mooring lines and there was a soft hiss. Immediately thereafter, the stern of the 245-meter-long craft burst into flames. A fireball had erupted from a spark in gas cell four, one of 16 on board.
'Oh, the humanity!'
The molten metal superstructure and charred outer fabric collapsed to the ground. Panic broke out. Passengers leaped from the Zeppelin airship from more than 100 meters above the ground. It is a wonder that 61 of the 97 onboard survived. One American from the ground crew was among those killed. A desperate and emotional Morrison reported the scene as it unfolded in just 34 seconds: "Oh, the humanity!" he cried.
Some mystery remains around the cause of the Hindenburg's fiery end. It was not sabotage or a bomb. It could have been an electric charge that set off the quick chain of events.
Hindenburg: An engineering wonder
Before its fateful final voyage, the Hindenburg had made 63 trips in 1936 and 1937, mostly to New York and Rio de Janeiro, racking up a total of 337,000 kilometers (209,000 miles). The Zeppelin airship was a German invention. Helium, an inert noble gas and therefore uninflammable, was the gas of choice for the airships; however, the US refused to sell it to Nazi Germany. The alternative was hydrogen - far less stable and able to catch fire. The Hindenburg, along with its sister Zeppelins, used 190,000 cubic meters of hydrogen for every transatlantic voyage. The metal superstructure was held together by about five million rivets.
The passenger compartment was a part of the superstructure, rather than under the ship as in earlier designs. Guests traveled in luxury, enjoying a dining hall in Bauhaus style, hot and cold water, and even had the chance to smoke - despite the powder keg they were traveling in. The Zeppelin era came to an end in Lakehurst on May 6, 1937.
Photographer among the survivors
Karl Otto Clemens was a press photographer from Bonn onboard the Hindenburg and survived the fire. His newspaper, the "Bonner Generalanzeiger," ran his story on the next day's front page. "Two-thirds of the passengers saved, among them Bonn's Karl Otto Clemens," read the article's sub-headline.
Clemens had received a half-price fare in exchange for his photographs of the airship's journey. He photographed the three-day trip from Frankfurt with a minder always at his side, keeping an eye on him and his cameras. He was forbidden to bring his flashbulb, which posed a danger to the flammable hydrogen.
He noticed the flames as he was going to his cabin for his belongings, he told the radio reporter, Morrison. "The airship started to sway and sink, and I jumped through the window that's down there near the bar."
Clemens escaped unhurt with a Leica camera around his neck.