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Last survivor of the Hindenburg disaster dies

Kathy McCormack, November 18, 2019 7:00PM AP

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In this May 6, 1937 photo, Hindenburg crashes after exploding at the US Naval Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, US. Picture: AP media_cameraIn this May 6, 1937 photo, Hindenburg crashes after exploding at the US Naval Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, US. Picture: AP

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The last remaining survivor of the famous Hindenburg disaster has died.

Werner Gustav Doehner, the last among 62 passengers and crew who escaped the May 6, 1937 fire on the airship, was 90.

The fire killed his father, sister and 34 others. He was just 8 years old at the time. His mother managed to toss him and his brother from the burning airship but he suffered severe burns to his face, arms and legs.

The Hindenburg was a giant, lighter-than-air, rigid* airship called a Zeppelin. Going on a Zeppelin flight was an exciting luxury and much more comfortable than early aeroplanes.

4.6.98 Pride of Germany the Hindenburg was the biggest and safest airship in the world. Photo 1917. b/w. /airship media_cameraGerman Zeppelin airships such as the Hindenburg were considered the safest way to fly.

The Hindenburg disaster marked the abrupt end of the era of the airship as people lost confidence in this way of travelling.

As the 80th anniversary approached in 2017, Mr Doehner said he and his parents, older brother and sister were all on the 245m-long Zeppelin travelling to New Jersey, US. The airship departed on May 3, 1937. Mr Doehner’s father headed to his cabin after using his movie camera to film some scenes of the station from the airship’s dining room. That was the last time he saw his father.

As the Hindenburg arrived, flames began to flicker on top of the ship. The airship was filled with hydrogen* and once that was exposed to air, it fuelled an inferno*.

Onlookers running away from the Hindenburg as it crashes to the ground on fire at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, USA 07 May 1937.   zeppelin explosion accident fireball disaster  dirigible  historical  1930s  /Airships media_cameraOnlookers running away from the Hindenburg as it crashes to the ground on fire.

“Suddenly, the air was on fire,” Mr Doehner recalled.

“We were close to a window, and my mother took my brother and threw him out. She grabbed me and fell back and then threw me out,” he said. “She tried to get my sister, but she was too heavy, and my mother decided to get out by the time the Zeppelin was nearly on the ground.”

“I remember lying on the ground, and my brother told me to get up and to get out of there,” he recalled. Their mother, who had broken her hip, joined them and asked a steward to get her daughter, whom he carried out of the burning wreck.

Airship Hindenburg exploding as it approaches mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, USA 07 May 1937.   zeppelin explosion accident fireball disaster  dirigible  historical   1930s /Airships media_cameraHindenburg exploding into flames as it approached its mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, US, May 6, 1937.

The US Commerce Department’s investigations found the accident was caused by a leak of hydrogen, which, when mixed with air, caused a fire.

Historic Weekly Times pages. 1937. Part 4. Final scans. May 15, 1937. Page 6, Hindenburg Crash, 35 killed in the US. media_cameraThe Hindenburg disaster made the news around the world. This is part of the full-page report in The Weekly Times from May 15, 1937.

ZEPPELIN: FAST FACTS
Zeppelins were rigid-framed airships invented by German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1874.

The Delag airline began its Zeppelin passenger service in 1910 and by 1914 had flown more than 10,000 passengers on more than 1500 flights.

The word zeppelin came to be used for any rigid airship.

The German military used Zeppelins as bombers in World War I.

During the 1930s the airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg operated transatlantic* flights between Germany and North America and Brazil.

A one-way ticket from Germany to the US cost about the same amount as a new car did in 1936 and took about half the time of the journey by ship.

The Hindenburg’s fastest flight between Frankfurt, Germany and New Jersey, US, took 98 hours and 28 minutes.

Zeppelins had metal frames filled with balloons mostly made of rubber-coated cotton and filled with hydrogen, as well as powerful engines to move them through the sky.

media_cameraThe metal framework of the Hindenburg was tangled and partly melted by the fire.

Designers originally suggested the gas bags be filled with helium gas, which is not flammable*, but helium was rare and expensive. Hydrogen and helium are the two gases that are lighter than air.

Passengers and crew were in a two-deck structure – set up like a luxury cruise ship – underneath the body of the airship. There was a dining room, kitchen, lounge, bathrooms, cabins and even a smoking room. Access to the smoking room was carefully controlled to make sure no one carried a lit cigarette or pipe out.

The Hindenburg was the largest of its kind and, at 245m long, almost as big as the ship Titanic.

There were several other airship disasters around the world before the Hindenburg fire.

A blimp is another kind of airship that was popular at the same time as zeppelins. Blimps are an inflated balloon with no rigid frame.

GLOSSARY

  • rigid: stiff
  • hydrogen: a colourless, odourless gas that is lighter than air and very flammable
  • inferno: a large, out-of-control fire
  • transatlantic: across the Atlantic Ocean, usually meaning between Europe and North America
  • flammable: easily set on fire

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. How old was Werner Doehner in 1937?
  2. What caused the Hindenburg fire?
  3. How long did a flight from Germany to the US take?
  4. Where were the passengers while a zeppelin was flying?
  5. What is the difference between a zeppelin and a blimp?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Ask the questions
If you had been able to interview Werner Doehner in 2017 (on the 80th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster), what five questions would you ask him and why?

List the questions and include your reasons for asking each question.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, History

2. Extension
How has air travel changed since the time of the Hindenburg?

Describe as many changes as you can think of. Use information in the story to help you.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity.
Curriculum Links: English, Science, History

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight all the openers you can find in blue. Discuss if they are powerful and varied openers or not. Why do you think the journalist has used a mix of simple and power openers? Would you change any, and why?

HAVE YOUR SAY: Would you fly in an airship if you had the chance?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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