The Vault

Caught on Tape: The Hindenburg’s Fiery Demise

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On May 6, 1937, the German airship Hindenburg exploded in New Jersey, after more than thirty successful transatlantic trips. That day, a combination of unfortunate events (a storm that charged the ship with static electricity and a mechanical failure that led to a hydrogen leak) caused a disaster that would effectively end the promising practice of travel by airship.

You won’t see flames for the first three minutes of this newsreel footage of the event. But those minutes, which show a previous successful trip, are fascinating.

We get shots of the majestic airship sailing over Manhattan, a swastika on its tail. Hovering over the landing field, the ship vents water (used for ballast). The ground crew lashes ropes onto the basket and walks the ship toward the docking station, looking like ambitious ants carrying a large crumb of bread.

At about the 3-minute mark in this clip, the footage of the disastrous docking begins. The ship goes up in flames with astonishing speed. Very quickly, we can see the skeletal framework of the dirigible; soon, that framework collapses in a heap.

Of the 97 people on board, only 35 people died (as well as one person on the ground). Given the inferno, how was this possible? In the footage of the previous flight, we can see people looking out of the windows on the sides of the ship. The survivors of the disaster of May 6 were similarly positioned, on the deck nearest the promenade windows; they jumped out and ran away before the ship was engulfed in flames.

Thanks to the Public Domain Review for flagging this footage.