Hindenburg Remembered, 70 Years Later

This photo, taken at almost the split second that the Hindenburg exploded, shows the 804-foot German zeppelin just before the second and third explosions send the ship crashing to the earth over the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937. The roaring flames silhouette two men, at right atop the mooring mast, dangerously close to the explosions. Sunday, May 6, 2007 marks the 70th anniversary of the disaster.
At 87, Robert Buchanan says he sometimes has trouble remembering what he did 10 minutes ago. But he can recall in vivid detail the day 70 years ago, when he watched the luxurious airship Hindenburg erupt into a fireball.

Flames roared across the surface of the mighty German dirigible only 100 or so feet above him, singeing his hair as he ran for his life.

"It was a piff-puff, just like someone would leave the gas on and not get the flame to it," said Buchanan, one of the last living members of the ground crew waiting to help the Hindenburg land.

Seventy years ago Sunday, the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg ignited while easing toward its mooring mast at the U.S. Navy base in Lakehurst. The blaze killed 35 people on board and one person in the ground crew; 62 passengers and crew members survived.

"I ran quite a distance because the heat, the flame, kept shooting out ahead of me," said Buchanan, of nearby Tuckerton. "And I really didn't think I was going to make it, frankly."

The huge airship — more than three times longer than a Boeing 747 — was engulfed in flames and sank to the ground in less than a minute. Photographers and newsreel crews on hand for the landing captured the scene, and a shocked radio station broadcaster recorded the often-replayed phrase "Oh, the humanity and all the passengers!"

The 804-foot-long Hindenburg was cutting-edge technology, with its fabric-covered, metal frame held aloft by more than 7 million cubic feet of lighter-than-air hydrogen. Flammable hydrogen had to be used because of a U.S. embargo on nonflammable helium.