Werner Franz was stocking a kitchen cupboard aboard the airship Hindenburg when he heard an ominous thud.
The airship shuddered violently, pitching all the crockery
to the floor. This was followed by a deafening roar as a vast quantity of
hydrogen exploded into flames.
Fourteen-year old Franz, a cabin boy aboard the Hindenburg,
knew that they had been meant to land in the morning.
He was hoping he’d have time to make a quick visit New York before the return
flight to Germany. But poor weather and thunderstorms had delayed the landing
by many hours and it was early evening by the time Captain Max Pruss was able
to steer the craft towards its docking station.
Franz was busily tidying the kitchens as they came into
land. At 7.10pm, he heard the signal for landing stations being sounded. Ten minutes later, radio operator Franz Eichelmann relayed
an order from the control car: six men were to go to the ship’s bow
immediately. The captain was having difficulty landing and the weight of the
crew would help bring the ship into trim.
Franz was jolted by the thud and glanced up, only to see a
huge ball of flame advancing towards him. Before he had a chance to react, he
was drenched in cold water. One of the water ballast tanks above him had
ruptured and sent gallons of water crashing down on him. Although he did not
yet know it, this was to save his life.
On the ground, a crowd of spectators had gathered to watch
the Hindenburg docking. There were also a number of journalists at the airbase,
for this was the first transatlantic passenger flight of the year (the airship
had previously made a return flight from Germany to Brazil.)
It was a
terrible spectacle for the onlookers, but it was more terrible by far for Werner
Franz and his fellow crew and passengers. The water had soaked Franz’s clothes
and protected him from the flames, but the fireball was rapidly advancing towards
he hit the ground, the airship rose up as it rebounded off the landing wheel.
Franz ran - ran for his life - and escaped from underneath the wreck just as it
crashed to the ground. Less than 40 seconds after the Hindenburg burst into flames, there was virtually nothing left.
|A ball of fire: and Werner Franz is inside|
Franz looked up and was appalled by what he saw. A massive ball of fire was rushing towards him at high speed. Within seconds, he would be engulfed by the flames.
It was Thursday May 6, 1937, and the giant Zeppelin airship was in the process of docking at its mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. The flight from Frankfurt had taken longer than usual due to the strong headwinds in the mid-Atlantic.
|A loud thud and then a fireball|
It was to be a ‘flying moor landing’ - so called because the airship would drop its landing ropes at high altitude and then be winched down to its mooring.
|A ball of fire: and passengers and crew inside|
Young Franz would have liked to join them because the windows in the Hindenburg’s bow offered a magnificent panorama of the ground. But he still had dishes to put away and was forced to remain in the kitchens.
At 7.17pm the wind suddenly shifted direction, forcing Captain Pruss to make a sweeping sharp turn. A minute later, he dropped hundreds of tons of water ballast because the airship was stern heavy. At 7.21pm, the first of the mooring lines were dropped and all seemed well.
It was further four minutes before there was the first sign that something was wrong. Several of the crew noticed that the fabric above the upper fin was fluttering in a strange way. There was also a strange blue discharge, like static electricity. And then - suddenly - all hell broke loose.
A massive sheet of yellow flames burst from the top fin, ripping through the fabric of the airship at a devastating speed.
|All over in less than 40 seconds|
|Franz's escape hatch: note the water pouring out|
Among the journalists was Herbert Morrison, a radio broadcaster for WLS Station based in Chicago. He was in mid-broadcast when he saw the Hindenburg erupt into a ball of fire.
‘It's burst into flames,’ he screamed down the microphone, ‘and it's falling it's crashing! Watch it; watch it! Get out of the way; Get out of the way!’
His live broadcast would later become famous for the sheer drama of his reporting.
‘It's burning and bursting into flames … and it's falling on the mooring mast... this is the one of the worst catastrophes in the world,’ he said. ‘Crashing… it's a terrific crash… it's smoke and it's in flames now and the frame is crashing to the ground… Oh, the humanity!’
|Franz escapes: the arrow points at him jumping|
He, like the other 96 passengers and crew, was trapped: there seemed to be no way out of the burning Zeppelin.
But then Franz noticed that there was a hatch just in front of him; it was used to load the airship with food.
He could not reach it while the ship was hanging at such an angle in the sky, but as the bow slowly began to sink Franz managed to pull himself towards it.
The fire was burning like a furnace but Franz had the presence of mind to kick open the hatch. As it fell away, he saw the ground rising up before him. He leaped from the burning airship, at great risk of having the fiery Zeppelin land on top of him.
|The survivor returns home|
Franz’s was very lucky to escape. Many of his fellow crew were not so fortunate. When the rescue teams were finally able to approach the smouldering rubble - and count the cost of the disaster - it was discovered that 22 crew members and 13 passengers had lost their lives. One of the ground crew was also killed.
It was nevertheless a miracle that 62 people escaped from the burning inferno.
The Hindenburg disaster was never satisfactorily explained, despite numerous investigations. It marked the end of travel by airship: the famous German Zeppelin was consigned to history.
Franz eventually got passage by ship back to Germany, arriving on his 15th birthday. And there he lives to this day, now aged 89 and the only living survivor of arguably the most spectacular air disaster of the 20th century.
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit www.gilesmilton.com