“Up, ship” – the words of command given by Captain Max Pruss in the control car of the Hindenburg, on May 3, 1937, as she departed from Germany on her tragic flight to Lakehurst. This week the Encore TV channel is to present a four-hour miniseries “Hindenburg: The Last Flight”. The production has been panned by critics, not least in the Wall Street Journal; and Rob Owen, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, described it as indeed a disaster — just not the kind the producers intended.
There were two official inquiries into the disaster, one American, one German, the findings of which were essentially in agreement.
The US Commerce Department found that: “The cause of the accident was the ignition of a mixture of free hydrogen and air. Based upon the evidence, a leak at or in the vicinity of cell 4 and 5 caused a combustible mixture of hydrogen and air to form in the upper stern part of the ship in considerable quantity; the first appearance of an open flame was on the top of the ship and a relatively short distance forward of the upper vertical fin. The theory that a brush discharge ignited such mixture appears most probable.”
The German Commission determined that the most probable cause of the accident was a hydrogen leak in gas cell 4 or 5 in the rear of the ship, perhaps through the tearing of a wire, and that the hydrogen-air mixture was most probably ignited by a spark between the ship’s outer cover and its framework, created as a result of the differing electrical charge between the ship and the ground to which landing-lines had already been dropped.
Many subsequent investigations and experiments, including very recent ones, have come to the same conclusion. The verdict is, however, far from unanimous.
I have an authentic relic of the great airship, a tiny part of her structure, highlighted in red in the photograph above. I also possess a substantial collection of books on the history of airships. One of them is A. A. Hoehling’s “Who Destroyed the Hindenburg?” published in 1962, in which he rejected all theories but sabotage – an opinion held by many, including the ship’s captain, Max Pruss, who (though very badly burned) survived until 1960. Hoehling named a crew member as the suspect saboteur: Eric Spehl, a rigger on the Hindenburg who himself died in the fire.
Hoehling claimed a number of grounds for naming Spehl as the culprit:
• Spehl’s girlfriend had communist beliefs and anti-Nazi connections.
• The fire’s origin was near the catwalk running through Gas Cell 4, which was an area of the ship generally off-limits to anyone other than Spehl and his fellow riggers.
• Rumors that the Gestapo had investigated Spehl’s possible involvement in 1938.
• Spehl’s interest in amateur photography, making him familiar with flashbulbs that could have served as an igniter.
• The discovery by representatives of the NYPD Bomb Squad of a substance that was later determined to likely be “the insoluble residue from the depolarizing element of a small, dry battery.” (Hoehling postulated that a dry cell battery could have powered a flashbulb in an incendiary device.)
• A flash or a bright reflection that crew members near the lower fin had seen just before the fire.
Hoehling’s hypothesis goes on to say that it is unlikely that Spehl wanted to kill people, and that he intended for the airship to burn after the landing instead. However, with the ship already over 12 hours late, Spehl was in the end unable to find an excuse to reset the timer on his bomb.
The disaster at Lakehurst on May 6 was covered by a reporter, Herbert Morrison, for WLS Radio, Chicago. His memorable words – “Oh, the humanity…” were not heard live at the time but were broadcast later.