Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on May 1, 2015.

It is one of the most recognizable disaster images in history: the German dirigible Hindenburg being consumed by flames as it descends for a landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937. The crash, which killed 36 people, marked the end of the airship era.

The Hindenburg left Germany on its flight to the United States a little after 7 p.m. on May 3, carrying 36 passengers and 61 crew—and 7,000 cubic feet of highly explosive hydrogen, the “most dangerous of all gases for inflation of airships,” according to an article in The New York Times. Ordinarily, the Hindenburg would have used nonflammable helium as its lifting gas, but the United States, which produced more helium than any other country in the world, had banned the export of the gas in 1927.

For the next two days, passengers enjoyed the airship’s luxurious accommodations, including an elegant dining room, a lounge with a specially made aluminum piano, and a smoking room. By 3 p.m. on May 6, the Hindenburg had reached Manhattan, then continued to the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, where it was to land shortly after 4 p.m. However, a rainstorm forced the commanding captain, Max Pruss, to fly the airship out over the New Jersey coast to avoid the weather, delaying its arrival for three hours.

Shortly after 7 p.m., Pruss began his approach to the mooring mast at Lakehurst, while First Officer Albert Sammt began releasing hydrogen to reduce the ship’s buoyancy. At 7:21 p.m., with the Hindenburg less than 200 feet above the ground, the captain ordered that the landing ropes be dropped.
Just minutes later, the airship burst into flames.

An eyewitness told The New York Times that he saw fire coming from the rear of the ship. “Then there was a terrific explosion and the entire airship suddenly became enveloped in flames,” he said. “The nose of the airship was jerked upward and then the whole flaming hulk plummeted to the ground where the wreckage was instantly enveloped in dense black smoke.” The disaster unfolded in just 32 seconds.

Twenty-two officers and crew perished, along with 13 passengers and one worker on the ground. Pruss and Sammt survived, though Pruss was seriously burned trying to rescue passengers. To this day, the exact cause of the fire remains unknown. However, experts agree that the most likely culprit was static electricity that ignited hydrogen leaking from the inflation cells.

KATHLEEN ROBINSON is NFPA Journal editorial operations manager.