- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

LAKEHURST, N.J. (AP) — Robert Buchanan says he sometimes has trouble remembering what he did 10 minutes ago. But the 87-year-old can recall in vivid detail the day 70 years ago when he watched the luxurious airship Hindenburg erupt into a fireball.

Flames roared across the surface of the mighty German dirigible 100 or so feet above him, singing his hair as he ran for his life.

“It was a piff-puff, just like someone would leave the gas on and not get the flame to it,” said Mr. Buchanan, one of the last living members of the ground crew waiting to help the Hindenburg land.

Seventy years ago today, the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg ignited while easing toward its mooring mast at the U.S. Navy base in Lakehurst. The blaze killed 35 persons on board and one person in the ground crew; 62 passengers and crew members survived.

The huge airship — more than three times as long as a Boeing 747 — was engulfed in flames and sank to the ground in less than a minute. Photographers and newsreel crews on hand for the landing captured the scene, and a shocked radio station broadcaster recorded the often replayed phrase “Oh, the humanity and all the passengers!”

The 804-foot-long Hindenburg was cutting-edge technology, with its fabric-covered, metal frame held aloft by more than 7 million cubic feet of lighter-than-air hydrogen. Flammable hydrogen had to be used because of a U.S. embargo on nonflammable helium.

It was “the Concorde of its day back in 1936 and ‘37,” said Carl Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. But after the fire, he said, it would be called the “Titanic of the sky.”

The historical society planned a private 70th anniversary memorial service today at the crash site in Lakehurst, about 40 miles east of Philadelphia.

The Hindenburg was a swastika-emblazoned billboard for Nazi Germany, providing travel across the Atlantic in less than half the time of the standard four- to five-day ocean liner trip, said Rick Zitarosa, a vice president of the historical society. With a capacity for 72 passengers, it carried more than 1,000 passengers on 10 successful round trips between Germany and Lakehurst in 1936, in addition to trips to Brazil the same year.

“It was the most luxurious experience in the air, before and since,” Mr. Zitarosa said.

On May 6, 1937, more than 1,000 sightseers had gathered at Lakehurst to see the Hindenburg arrive with 61 crew and 36 passengers after its first trans-Atlantic flight of the year.

Mr. Buchanan, 17 at the time, was among more than 200 ground crew members waiting in rainy weather.

“The blessing is that I wore a sweater and I was soaking wet, absolutely wringing wet. And that’s what I think saved us,” he said.

Eight-year-old passenger Werner Doehner saw chairs fall across the Hindenburg’s dining room door.

“Just instantly, the whole place was on fire,” said Mr. Doehner, of Parachute, Colo., the last surviving passenger.

Mr. Doehner, 78, still has trouble discussing the tragedy that killed his father and sister. He was hospitalized for months for treatment of burns.

The cause of the disaster is still debated. The most accepted theory is that static electricity from the day’s storms ignited leaking hydrogen.

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