On this day in 1937, the German airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built, explodes as it arrives in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty-six people died in the fiery accident that has since become iconic, in part because of the live radio broadcast of the disaster.
The dirigible 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 had a state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz engine. It was filled with 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen, even though helium was known to be far safer, because it made the flying ship more maneuverable.
The Hindenburg had made 10 successful ocean crossings the year before and was held up by Germany’s Nazi government as a symbol of national pride. Flying at a speed of 85 miles per hour, the Hindenburg was scheduled to arrive in New Jersey at 5 a.m. on May 6. However, weather conditions pushed the arrival back to the late afternoon and then rain further delayed the docking at Lakehurst. When the dirigible was finally cleared to dock, Captain Max Pruss brought the ship in too fast and had to order a reverse engine thrust. At 7:20 p.m., a gas leak was noticed. Within minutes, the tail blew up, sending flames hundreds of feet in the air and as far down as the ground below.
A chain reaction caused the entire vessel to burn instantly. The nearly 1,000 spectators awaiting the Hindenburg‘s arrival felt the heat 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. Fifty-six people managed to survive.
On WLS radio, announcer Herbert Morrison gave an unforgettably harrowing live account of the disaster, “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.”