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Seventy Three Years Ago Today: The Hindenburg Disaster

by @ 10:19 am on May 6, 2010. Filed under History

hindenburg-disaster-hull-buckle

Nearly three-quarters of a century ago at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, one of the most iconic images of the early 20th Century:

At 7:25 p.m. local time, the Hindenburg caught fire and quickly became engulfed in flames.[3] Where the fire started is controversial; several witnesses on the port side saw yellow-red flames first just forward of the top fin, around the vent of cell 4.[3] Other witnesses on the port side noted the fire actually began just ahead of the horizontal port fin, only then followed by flames in front of the upper fin. One, with views of the starboard side, saw flames beginning lower and farther aft, near cell 1. No. 2 Helmsman Helmut Lau also testified seeing the flames spreading from cell 4 into starboard. Although there were four newsreel cameramen and at least one spectator known to be filming the landing, they were all recording the actions of the ground crew when the fire started and therefore there is no motion picture record of where it first broke out at the instant of ignition.

Wherever it started, the flames quickly spread forward. Almost instantly, a water tank and a fuel tank burst out of the hull due to the shock of the blast. This shock also caused a crack behind the passenger decks, and the rear of the structure imploded. The buoyancy was lost on the stern of the ship, and the bow lurched upwards as the falling stern stayed in trim.

As the Hindenburg’s tail crashed into the ground, a burst of flame came out of the nose, killing nine of the 12 crew members in the bow. As the airship kept falling with the bow facing upwards (because there was more lifting gas still in the nose), part of the port side directly behind the passenger deck collapsed inward (where a crack formed during the initial blast), and the gas cell there exploded, erasing the scarlet lettering “Hindenburg” while the airship’s bow lowered. The airship’s gondola wheel touched the ground, causing the airship to bounce up once more. At this point, most of the fabric had burned away. At last, the airship went crashing on the ground, bow first. The ship was completely destroyed. Although the hydrogen had finished burning, the Hindenburg’s diesel fuel burned for a few more hours.

The time it took for the airship to be completely destroyed has been disputed. Some observers believe it took 34 seconds, others say it took 32 or 37 seconds. Since none of the newsreel cameras were filming the airship when the fire started, the time of the start of the fire can only be estimated from various eyewitness accounts, and will never be known accurately. One careful analysis of the flame spread, by Addison Bain of NASA, gives the flame front spread rate across the fabric skin as about 49 ft/s (15 m/s), which would have resulted in a total destruction time of about 16 seconds (245 m / 15 m/s = 16.3 s). The duralumin framework of the airship was salvaged and shipped back to Germany where it was recycled and used in the construction of military aircraft for the Luftwaffe as were the frames of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin and LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II as well when both were scrapped in 1940.[5]

The most famous account of the disaster can be found in this eyewitness report by WLS radio reporter Herbert Morrison:

Thirty-six people died in the crash, most of them crew members. Miraculously, there were 62 survivors.

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