Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The real cause of the Hindenburg disaster?

Bill Bonvie lives and writes in Little Egg Harbor Township As a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Robert C. Buchanan came under his share of fire in World War II, including three "very precarious" days in the invasion of Salerno. But nothing scared him quite as much as the fire he came under - literally - a few years before he was drafted.

Bill Bonvie

lives and writes in Little Egg Harbor Township

As a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Robert C. Buchanan came under his share of fire in World War II, including three "very precarious" days in the invasion of Salerno. But nothing scared him quite as much as the fire he came under - literally - a few years before he was drafted.

Seventy years ago today, Buchanan, then 17, found himself standing directly beneath the giant dirigible Hindenburg when that luxury liner of the skies, the pride of Hitler's Germany, burst into flame while attempting a routine landing at the Lakehurst, N.J., Naval Air Station. The great airship, just concluding a transatlantic flight, was consumed in little more than 30 seconds.

Buchanan, who now lives in Tuckerton, was right there - and he said he saw the spark that caused it. Indeed, this eyewitness disagrees with experts about why the Hindenburg disaster occurred.

With his brother Frank and some cousins, Buchanan was part of the ground crew that helped guide the hydrogen-filled airship to its mooring post via towlines. And then it happened.

"The heat was tremendous," Buchanan said. "The ship was completely enveloped in red and orange flames and was drifting the same way we were running - I really didn't think we were going to make it. My hair was singed, and I think the only thing that saved us was that we had sweaters on and were soaking wet. We were literally steaming."

A fellow crew member, Allen Hagaman, died of burns after tripping over a railroad track used in the mooring procedure as the ship's flaming stern lurched toward the ground.

As airship disasters go, this one was hardly the worst on record. About 62 passengers and crew members survived, and the death toll of 36 was half the number who perished when the U.S. Navy dirigible Akron went down in a storm off the Jersey coast in 1933. But many things conspired to make the Hindenburg crash one of the iconic events of the 20th century. Hours earlier, the airship - nearly the size of the Titanic and, along with the Graf Zeppelin, the largest ever built - had been seen by millions as it glided over New York City. Thanks to heavy media coverage, the horrible final moments were captured on film. And millions soon heard the on-the-scene lament of radio newscaster Herbert Morrison of station WLS in Chicago.

But it was what Buchanan contends he witnessed just before the fire that is perhaps most significant. It's the thing he believes literally sparked the demise of the Hindenburg, although it does not jibe with the conventional (although still controversial) view: that the conflagration was caused by static electricity traveling up damp towlines and somehow igniting all that hydrogen. (A theory that sabotage was involved, used in a 1970s movie, is widely dismissed as unsubstantiated speculation.)

When Buchanan and his party first arrived from Toms River about 4 p.m., he said, the ship was nowhere in sight, its landing delayed by inclement weather. It appeared about three hours later, after conditions had slightly improved, and it hovered a little higher than usual, when, as he recalls, a slight wind gust altered its position.

At that point, he remembers looking directly up at the starboard rear engine, one of the airship's four huge diesels, just as it was given full throttle, apparently to reposition the ship, and backfired.

"There was a tremendous roar - these diesels had no mufflers - and what I saw were sparks and fire coming out of that exhaust."

Just seconds later, he said, the conflagration began. But he remembers no real explosion - "just a poof, like someone lighting a gas stove." And indeed, the film record confirms that there was no explosion, but a series of three lightning-quick fires that ravaged the airship.

Buchanan reported what he saw in a questionnaire given to ground-crew members, but he appears to have been ignored by the official boards of inquiry convened both here and in Germany.

But in a book titled The Freedom Element, Addison Bain, a former NASA scientist who conducted his own extensive investigation, referred to it as a "smoking gun." Bain, whose research included work at archives of the Zeppelin Co., which manufactured the Hindenburg, concluded that the real accelerant was not hydrogen, which burns with a colorless flame, but the dirigible's cotton-fabric skin, which was coated with a highly combustible aluminum powder to help control its temperature. The sparks from the engine exhaust were not the source of ignition, he believes, but rather an electrical charge produced by the exhaust particulate.

Bain acknowledges that hydrogen may well have added fuel to the fire. But he feels it has been given an undeserved rap, based in some measure on the widely publicized Hindenburg disaster. There had long been concerns about hydrogen's volatility. Helium, being inert and nonflammable, was always looked on as the safer alternative. But in the 1930s, the United States had a near-monopoly on helium, and recalling how German airships had been used to bomb Britain in World War I, repeatedly turned down the entreaties of Zeppelin Co. director Hugo Eckener to purchase it.

Eventually, helium-filled military blimps were used to escort U.S. warships during World War II, while the two remaining Zeppelin passenger dirigibles - including the LZ-130, completed after the Hindenburg crash - were ordered destroyed, along with their hangars, by Reich Marshal Hermann Göring. Their aluminum frames were scrapped to build warplanes and rockets for the Third Reich.

The three dozen victims of the Hindenburg presaged the millions who would perish in the inferno ignited by an evil engine whose swastika was displayed on the doomed airship's tailfins. And Bob Buchanan would, ironically, be among those who risked their lives to end Hitler's reign of terror over Europe.

On the night of May 6, 1937, once he and his brother and his cousins had regrouped, all he could think of was getting home so his parents would not worry. His cousins, though, had another urgent motivation.

"My father had a bar," Buchanan said, "and all they wanted was a drink."

For video of the Hindenburg disaster, plus the famous radio account by Herbert Morrison, go to: EndText