Caught on Tape: The Hindenburg's Fiery Demise

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
May 6 2013 11:00 AM

Caught on Tape: The Hindenburg's Fiery Demise

The Vault is Slate's new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

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.

Advertisement

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.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.