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People Falling From the Sky : Radio Reporter Recalls Tragedy That Seared Life

May 03, 1987|JULIA MARTINEZ | Associated Press

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Herbert Morrison recalls things more slowly these days, but when he closes his eyes the events of May 6, 1937, come rushing back--the explosion, the fire, and people falling from the sky.

"It's burst into flame! Yes, it's started. . . . It's fire and it's crashing! It's crashing terrible. Oh, my," Morrison screamed into his microphone as the German dirigible, the Hindenburg, exploded over Lakehurst, N.J.

Morrison, now 81, was the only broadcaster reporting on the landing of the enormous airship. Thirty-six people perished in the flames.

Then 31, Morrison became the eyes and ears for the world as he gave a tearful account of the devastation. His report on Chicago radio station WLS was repeatedly rebroadcast across the nation.

Morrison said he was in New Jersey at the invitation of American Airlines as part of a publicity stunt. He said the station manager initially refused to let him go, then decided to test some new recording equipment.

It was about 7:25 p.m. as dusk settled over Lakehurst, Morrison recalled in a recent interview at his northern West Virginia home. The airship had encountered strong head winds and was several hours behind its scheduled arrival.

"It was getting dark and a little drizzle of rain had started," Morrison said. "The landing crew was spread out around the landing strip. We could see the Hindenburg coming in and down and down and down. About 10 minutes out, I started talking into the microphone."

Morrison's sound engineer, Charlie Nielsen, was monitoring the equipment inside a nearby building.

"Isn't that a beautiful sight," Morrison recalled saying as the airship, nearly the length of three football fields, came floating in. "I was talking about what it meant to the United States to have this connection with Germany and how it showed the success of air travel. I hardly had the words out of my mouth when--wow--I heard an explosion. A fire erupted in the tail section.

"People around me gasped. They started crying and screaming. We could see things falling out of the Hindenburg. Some of the things were people."

As the disaster unfolded, Morrison gave an emotional, firsthand account, at one point halting to choke back tears when the airship crashed.

"Oh, the humanity . . . all the passengers . . . I don't believe . . . I can't even talk to people whose friends are on there. . . . It's a, it's a . . . I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it just lays there, a mass of smoking wreckage."

Morrison interrupted his 42-minute broadcast briefly to help two survivors to safety.

"The shock was great. But not great enough to make me stop talking. I talked all the way through," he said.

After eluding other reporters and throngs of people who wanted to hear his tapes and question him about the disaster, Morrison finally returned to Chicago early the next morning. His report was aired for the first time at noon on May 7, 1937.

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