‘Oh, the humanity!’: Marking 80 years since the Hindenburg disaster over New Jersey

Posted at 5:33 PM, May 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-06 17:33:32-04

LAKEHURST, N.J. — When the Hindenburg erupted into a hydrogen-fueled inferno in 1937, it was one of the first major disasters captured on film.

"Oh, the humanity!" are the infamous words of a radio announcer who watched the airship burst into flames.

Saturday marks the 80th anniversary of the tragedy. The field where the ship's skeleton came to rest in Lakehurst, N.J., is still empty. It's closed to the public, as part of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

"I knew the crew," Dr. Horst Schirmer said.

Schirmer, now 86, climbed aboard the Hindenburg for a test flight just months prior to the catastrophe. His dad was among those who designed and engineered the airship. His father was supposed to travel with the Hindenburg crew from Germany to Lakehurst on the day of the disaster, but his travel plans were interrupted when the German military called for him in Berlin.

Schirmer still remembers seeing images of the disaster for the first time: "I was shocked."

It took just 34 seconds for the entire blimp, which stretched longer than two football fields, to burn. Amazingly, 62 passengers and crew survived. Thirty-six died and most were crewman.

The youngest crew member, Werner Franz, 15, was saved by a water tank exploding overhead. It soaked him and he was able to escape the fireball without a scratch, said Rick Zitarosa.

Zitarosa is the vice president and historian for the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society.

"Hindenburg was the first major media event captured in real time," he said.