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Hindenburg disaster, 75 years later, still a horror for humanity

In hindsight, filling an 804-ft.-long, 15-story-tall airship with a highly flammable gas might not have been the safest way to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

But in the 1930s, hydrogen-filled dirigibles, first developed by the Germans, were the fastest way to travel between America and Europe.

The airship era came to an abrupt and fiery end May 6, 1937, with the sudden explosion of the LZ 129 Hindenburg as it attempted to dock at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in southern New Jersey with 97 people aboard.

Thirty-six people died - 13 passengers, 22 crew members and one person working on the ground.

Three days earlier, the Hindenburg, festooned with Nazi swastikas on the tailfin, left Frankfurt. After an uneventful trip across the Atlantic, the airship passed over Boston in the morning, then circled lower Manhattan, where office workers flooded the streets for a glimpse of the dirigible as thunderstorms delayed the Hindenburg's attempt to land in Lakehurst until about 7 p.m.

The last surviving passenger, Werner Doehner, was just 8 when the airship suddenly began to tilt.

"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."

Doehner, his brother and his mother all survived - but his father and younger sister were not so lucky. To this day, Doehner is still so pained by the memories he rarely grants interviews.

Robert Buchanan was a 17-year-old grounds crew member in 1937.

"The ship came in much higher than normal and I was under engine number one," he said. "This 12,000 horsepower engine with no muffler suddenly went full-throttle and I looked up as soon as I heard it roaring. I saw sparks and flames coming out of it. Two or three seconds later the whole sky was just one huge flame. The ship was coming down on us. By instinct, I turned perpendicular to the ship and ran as fast as I could. Finally, when the heat diminished, I turned around. The last thing I saw of the Hindenburg was the stern in the ground, the nose sticking up in the air and fire was shooting out of the bow. Then it all came crashing down and became just a burning skeleton."

Now 93, Buchanan attributes his survival to that fateful night's heavy rains, which soaked his sweater, preventing falling debris from lighting it on fire.

"Terrified, that's the only word I can think of that describes how terrible it was," he said. "The heat was very intense, but the heavy wool sweater that my grandmother made for me was soaking wet from the rain and that kept me from getting burned. All it did was singe my hair, but the smell bothered me that night and for the next couple of days. Even when I took showers, the smell just lingered."

The Hindenburg made 37 transatlantic trips, safely carrying 2,798 passengers a total of nearly 200,000 miles.

Dr. Horst Shirmer, 81, whose father designed the aeronautics for the Hindenburg, is one of the last people alive to have ridden on the doomed airship. He was five when his father took him on a test ride over Lake Constance in Switzerland in 1936.

"The ship was huge and looked like a grand hotel," he remembered.

"One experience still sticks in my mind. My father had me stand under the ship, which was weightless and suspended in a hanger. He said, 'Raise the ship with your hands.' The ship was so giant I couldn't even see the tail or bow, but I could raise it up like a toy balloon."

Less than a year later, a thousand sightseers, journalists and photographers, including Charles Hoff of the Daily News, were on hand to witness - and record - the horrifying images of the very same dirigible as it burst into flames and fell to earth.

"The Hindenburg is so prolifically remembered because it was the first disaster filmed as it happened," says Carl Jablonksi, President of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, which will host a memorial ceremony today. "We know about what happened to the Titanic, but there's no film. We know by word of mouth. But this was filmed."

The most famous report came from radioman Herbert Morrison, whose lugubrious "Oh the humanity!" became one of history's most recognized broadcasts.

The cause of the tragedy, however, is still unknown.

Some believe static sparked the fire. Others think it was lightning.

Buchanan believes engine failure ignited the airship's outer skin.

"At the time, none of the officials, or even my cousins, took much stock in the backfire I witnessed," he said. "Now, 75 years later, that's changing. I will never forget those red-hot burnt pieces of carbon leaping from the engine moments before the explosion."

"A small fire became a big fire," Jablonski said. "Once it got through 16 cells of hydrogen, it only took 34 seconds for the ship to become engulfed and fall."

From: New York Daily News

Led Zeppelin front cover

Of course, artist George Hardie was commissioned to design the sleeve of Led Zeppelin's eponymous début album by manager Peter Grant, in October 1968. Hardie had previously worked on Jeff Beck's album Truth, whom Grant had also managed, and his original concept was to have a sequential image of a zeppelin with clouds and waves. Guitarist Jimmy Page wasn't entirely convinced and asked him to swap the design to a single facsimile image of the Hindenburg (LZ-129) going down in flames. Hardie's original concept however was later reused in part, on the inner gatefold sleeve of the next album, Led Zeppelin II.

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