May 7, 2012 – Seventy-five years ago today the skies were set aflame with burning hydrogen when the Hindenburg, the pride of the German air fleet, ignited over New Jersey. Many grainy black and white films exist of the night the Hindenburg fell, but one line from radio resonated above them all.
"Oh the humanity," was spoken by WLS radio announcer Herbert Morrison who broadcasted live for entire 60 seconds it took the airship to burn. His full response according to History.com was, "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."
The question remains as to the origin of the fire, with no clear answer available. Theories range from a bomb, to lightning to static electricity.
Debate also still rages over how the fire was able to spread through the dirigible so quickly. Hydrogen is the obvious choice. In fact, looking at the films you can see the separation between the various gas bags (16 in all) as each one bursts into flames. The skin of the aircraft can hardly be called to blame as some of it was able to survive the fire, the heat of which could be felt up to a mile away. Additionally, this fantastic photo shows the skin mainly intact while fire belches from the nose of the doomed ship.
The human cost was slight in comparison to other disasters of the time, such as plane crashes and the sinking of the Titanic. Overall, according to the New York daily News, "13 passengers, 22 crew members and one person working on the ground" were killed in the disaster.
The Hindenburg was the largest zeppelin ever constructed at 804 feet long and 15 stories tall with a 200,000 lb. cargo/passenger capacity that exceeded the passenger 747's 160,000 lbs. The minute it took to burn was so powerful, so iconic that it lives today even with the survivors.
"The last surviving passenger, Werner Doehner, was just 8 when the airship suddenly began to tilt," according to the New York Daily News.
"Instantly, the whole place was on fire," Doehner told the Associated Press. "My mother threw me out the window. She threw my brother out. Then she threw me, but I hit something and bounced back. She caught me and threw me the second time out."
Today, with newer technologies like plastics, ground radar and the abundance of hydrogen may be able to transport people safely through the skies, but until we can settle our feelings about the Hindenburg, it will be difficult to trust it again.