The Upshot

The Hindenburg Disaster: 75 years later


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On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg airship burst into flames over a New Jersey field.  75 years later, the disaster remains a source of mystery and fascination.

The Hindenburg was one of the first disasters caught on film, thanks to newsreel coverage. It had an unmistakable effect on the masses (it doomed travel by airship) and remains one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century. Reporter Herbert Morrison's reaction, "Oh, the humanity," quickly became the stuff of legend.

While the explosion was tragic and many people died, there were more survivors than you might think. Of the 97 people onboard, 36 people died (including one member of the ground crew). Despite all the attention that went into the determining the cause of the explosion, much remains a mystery.

One theory states that the Hindenburg's fabric was highly flammable. However, according to Airships.net, "scientific studies show that the Hindenburg's covering might not have been flammable at all." So, then why the explosion? Was it due to hydrogen gas mixing with oxygen? Was there too much static electricity? Like the death of JFK, everybody's got a theory.

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Some believe the explosion was the result of sabotage. Indeed, the Hindenburg was decorated with Nazi swastikas and was a symbol of the regime's rising power. According to Aerospaceweb.org, "a non-profit site operated by engineers and scientists in the aerospace field," a crew member named Eric Spehl was "named as the most likely saboteur" at first, due in part to his girlfriend's connections to an anti-Nazi organization: "Spehl was an amateur photographer acquainted with flashbulbs, and some theorize he used one of these bulbs powered by the battery as an ignition source to start the catastrophic fire."

Spehl, who died in the explosion, was never officially blamed. The theory, says Aerospaceweb.org, has "been largely discounted."

Perhaps the most likely scenario is the static spark. According to Aerospaceweb.org, this hypothesis states that "static electricity built up on the outer skin of the Hindenburg and could not be dissipated." Rainy weather made the ropes hanging from the ship more conductive to electricity. For whatever it's worth, according to the UnMuseum, both German and American governments "concluded a hydrogen leak was ignited by a spark of static electricity."

The true cause of the tragedy may never be known. But the Hindenburg disaster remains an eerily compelling story, even three-quarters of a century after that misty day in New Jersey.

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