LAKEHURST, N.J. — Fifty years later, the panic-filled voice of broadcaster Herb Morrison still seems to reverberate across New Jersey farmland that would have remained anonymous if not for a few seconds of fire and death:
"It bursts into flames. . . . It's fire, and it's crashing. It's crashing terrible. . . . It's burning, bursting into flames and it's falling on the mooring mast. . . . This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh, the flames going, oh, four- to five- hundred feet into the sky.
"It's a terrific crash . . . the smoke and the flames now, and the frame is crashing down into the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity."
It was dusk on the humid evening of May 6, 1937, when the majestic zeppelin Hindenburg, the largest aircraft ever built, floated into view of the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, N.J.
Bigger Than 2 Football Fields
The 804-foot-long airship--longer than 2 1/2 football fields--was to be the flagship of a fleet of dirigibles. Plans for bigger zeppelins already were drawn. On its 11th trip to the United States, the $3-million Hindenburg was the epitome of luxury travel.
But the fire that consumed the Hindenburg and 35 of its passengers and crewmen became the final nail in the coffin for zeppelins and ushered in the era of heavier-than-air craft such as airplanes and helicopters.
The tragedy was magnified because Americans could see it on newsreels and hear Morrison's sobbing account on radio. Although only about one-third of the passengers and crew died, it often is mentioned with the sinking of the Titanic and last year's shuttle explosion as transportation's worst disasters.
Half a century later, no one knows for sure what caused the massive fireball. Some suspect sabotage. Others believe a spark ignited stray hydrogen, the explosive lighter-than-air gas that kept the airship afloat. But witnesses to the disaster have little trouble remembering it.
"I seen this big red glow and it went out the nose like a blowtorch. That thing just went boom. It took just 34 seconds," said John Iannaccone, 76, who was in the 253-man ground crew pulling in the Hindenburg when it exploded.
Thirty-five of the 97 people aboard were killed. One worker on the ground also died. As Iannaccone rushed toward the burning dirigible, a passenger walked by.
"He was burnt completely. He had nothing on him, only his shoes. All his hair was burned off," Iannaccone said. "We also saw a young girl lying on her stomach. She had been burned on the back from her head to her heels--but just on her back."
As bottles of liquor and wine in the passenger cabins ignited around him, Iannaccone found an elderly German couple sitting in shock--but unharmed--in their compartment. "We told them, 'It's time to come out.' "
Verna Thomas, 71, who lived two miles from the airfield, could see passengers waving from the windows just before the disaster.
'A Terrible Sight'
"Everything blew up from the back right on through. My husband left me with the baby and ran out there. It was a terrible sight. All you did was scream, 'Oh, my God. Oh, my God,' " she said.
"It was unbelievable to see how just the structure was there and then it collapsed to the ground. And the people just rolled out and were rolling on the ground."
Morrison was a 31-year-old newsman for WLS radio in Chicago. After describing the fiery explosions, he ran out to the Hindenburg and tried to talk to survivors even though he couldn't communicate with most of the German passengers and crew.
"I saw one man running out. His clothes had been all burned off. He just had his shorts on," he said.
Before the Hindenburg, zeppelins had provided a thrilling sight to a world beset by economic depression, but the romance had already been tempered by a series of deadly crashes.
Have Rigid Frame
Zeppelins, or dirigibles, have a rigid frame over which cloth is stretched--as opposed to blimps, which are bags of air without any structure. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a 19th-Century German infantry officer, devised the rigid hull.
After Zeppelin's death, Hugo Eckener became the world's chief dirigible designer. His grandest craft was the LZ-129, which he named for the late German president, Paul von Hindenburg.
The United States and Britain built several zeppelins with disastrous results, but Germany--which used dirigibles to bomb London during World War I--was the world's foremost builder.
Adolf Hitler personally did not care for the airships, but realized they could be used for Nazi propaganda.
The Hindenburg, which floated along at 84 m.p.h., offered fine meals and was the only aircraft ever equipped with showers for passengers. They paid $400 for a one-way trip from Germany to the United States, the equivalent of nearly $3,000 today. The Nazis believed the Hindenburg would show the world their technical superiority.
Against Eckener's wishes, huge swastikas were painted on the Hindenburg's tail. Loudspeakers mounted on the airship promoted Hitler's programs on flights across Germany.