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This Day in History: The Hindenburg’s tragic last trip

On this day in 1937, the Hindenburg catches fire and crashes in New Jersey. Somewhat ironically, the airship was then celebrating the one year anniversary of its first transatlantic flight.

The German airship was a marvel of its time. It could cross the Atlantic in less than 3 days—about twice as fast as the ocean liners of the day! Not only that, but passengers flew in more style and comfort than you might imagine. They had their own cabins and bunk beds. They also had a public dining hall, a lounge, and a promenade where passengers could look out windows. Oddly, the hydrogen-filled airship even contained a small smoking lounge.

During its lifetime, the Hindenburg made 62 successful transatlantic crossings. Unfortunately, the 63rd flight would end in tragedy.

The Hindenburg departed Frankfurt on the evening of May 3, 1937, with 36 passengers and 61 crew members aboard. It followed a northern track across the Atlantic Ocean and reached first Boston, then New York, during the afternoon of May 6. It was scheduled to land at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey at 6:00 p.m., but it arrived a few hours early. Weather conditions in the area were poor, so the airship turned and flew around the coast of New Jersey for a while. By about 7:00 p.m., it was receiving messages to come back and make the “earliest possible landing.”

The Hindenburg returned to the Naval Air Station and dropped its forward landing lines at 7:21 p.m. The events that followed have been the subject of some controversy. What, exactly, caused the airship to catch fire? Scientists have long debated the matter, but it seems to have been some combination of leaking hydrogen and an electrostatic spark from the atmosphere.

Whatever the cause of the initial spark, the airship was quickly consumed. Some passengers were then gathered on the promenade deck, watching the landing. As the ship lurched downwards, they began jumping out of windows. One passenger was in the dining room when the fire began. He went to find his wife, who had returned to their cabin for her coat. Neither of them survived. Another woman was in the dining room with her three children. She and her two sons jumped to safety, but her 16-year old daughter died in the crash. She’d left the dining room to go look for her father.

In general, those who were deep inside the ship died. Those who were close to a quick exit survived. The entire ship was afire in less than 40 seconds.

As with so many tragedies, there were heroes that day! Passengers and crew fled the burning ship as it went down, but many American sailors were a part of the landing party. Some of them turned and ran *in* to the burning airship, trying to save passengers and crew.

There had been other crashes before, but this one, in particular, stunned the world. A media crew had happened to be there to film the landing, so the entire crash was caught on film. Reporter Herb Morrison famously narrated the crash as it happened: “Oh, it’s crashing . . . oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. There’s smoke, and there’s flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here!”

Of the 97 people aboard, a remarkable 62 people survived the crash. Tragically, 13 passengers, 22 crew, and 1 member of the landing party were killed.

The crash was so horrific that it marked the end of these airships for commercial travel.

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