On this day in 1937, as newsreel cameras rolled, the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg explodes in a fireball during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in Manchester Township, New Jersey. Of the 97 people on board (36 passengers and 61 crewmen), 35 were killed (13 passengers and 22 crewmen). One worker on the ground was also killed, raising the final death toll to 36.
The zeppelin was built to be the fastest, largest and most luxurious flying vessel of its time. It was more than 800 feet long, had a range of 8,000 miles, could carry 97 passengers and was elegantly propelled by state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz engines. It was filled with 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen, even though helium was known to be far safer, as the US had banned the export of helium and hydrogen made the flying ship more maneuverable.
The theory that hydrogen was ignited by a static spark is the most widely accepted cause as determined by the official crash investigations. Offering support for the hypothesis that there was some sort of hydrogen leak prior to the fire, accounts recall the airship remained stern-heavy before landing, despite efforts to put the airship back in trim.
The nearly 1,000 spectators awaiting the Hindenburg‘s arrival felt the heat of its explosion and fire from a mile away. Some on the blimp attempted to jump for the landing cables at the docking station but most died when they missed. Others waited to jump until the blimp was closer to the ground as it fell. Those who were not critically injured from burns often suffered broken bones from the jump.
On WLS radio, announcer Herbert Morrison gave an unforgettably harrowing account of the disaster known by millions: “Oh, oh, oh. It’s burst into flames. Get out of the way, please . . . this is terrible . . . it’s burning, bursting into flames, and is falling . . . Oh! This is one of the worst . . . it’s a terrific sight . . . oh, the humanity.”