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Herbert Morrison; Radio Reporter at Hindenburg Crash

January 11, 1989|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Herbert Morrison, the only broadcaster on hand when the dirigible Hindenburg exploded into a disastrous legacy 52 years ago and whose distraught description of that tragedy continues to reverberate over the decades, died Tuesday.

Morrison, whose emotional "Oh, the humanity" became a symbol of not just the crash itself but of the demise of dirigible travel, was 83 and died in a Morgantown, W. Va., nursing home.

He was 31 and a reporter for a Chicago radio station on May 6, 1937, when the opulent Hindenburg--the pride of Nazi Germany's transatlantic fleet--was coming in for a landing at a naval air station in Lakehurst, N.J.

Within a few seconds, what was to have been a routine landing of the 97 people aboard turned into a devastating scene of fire and death.

'It's Crashing'

"It bursts into flames," his account began as the majestic airship, then the largest flying craft ever built, began its approach at dusk on a humid evening.

"It's on fire and it's crashing," Morrison continued, battling to keep his wits. "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 500 feet into the sky."

And then as the 804-foot airship, nearly as long as three football fields, literally melted over the nearby farmland:

"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."

"We saw things falling out of the Hindenburg," he recalled in a 1986 interview with the Associated Press. "We had only a few seconds to have it dawn on you that it was a tragedy. Some of the things falling out were people."

Thirty-six of those aboard had been killed.

The Hindenburg was to have been the flagship of what was envisioned as a fleet of dirigibles. At the time of the disaster--the $3-million airship's 37th crossing of the Atlantic--bigger and more expensive dirigibles were on German drawing boards.

The tragedy was credited with effectively ending lighter-than-air travel and ushering in the modern era of heavier-than-air craft.

Because of Morrison's gripping account (which he and his engineer had decided beforehand to record to test some new equipment) and the newsreel footage that was also taken, the Hindenburg has come to be considered a 20th-Century calamity that ranks with the sinking of the Titanic even though the loss of life was considerably less.

To this day the cause of the grievous wreck has never been explained, although many experts believe that an errant spark ignited the hydrogen that was then used to keep lighter-than-air craft aloft.

Morrison said that after the initial shock, he tried to interview the survivors even though he could not speak German nor they English.

"I saw one man running out," he recalled. "His clothes had been all burned off. He just had his shorts on."

In all, he recorded for 42 minutes on that fateful day.

Later generations became aware of Morrison and the Hindenburg when Edward R. Murrow included the announcer's dramatic account in his recorded history of the 20th Century, "Hear It Now."

Morrison had begun his journalism career in Fairmont, Pa., after graduating from high school in 1923. He then became a radio reporter for stations in Pittsburgh.

News Director

Morrison served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and later became the first news director at television station WTAE in Pittsburgh. He retired after developing a radio and television section at West Virginia University.

In 1975, he was sent across the country by Universal Studios to help promote their film "Hindenburg," which starred George C. Scott.

Morrison was admitted to the Sundale Nursing Home in Morgantown in September because of a long-term illness, said Sherry Rice, an administrator at the facility.

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