Was The Hindenburg Disaster A Tragic Accident Or Nefarious Plot?

Investigators from two countries determined that the Hindenburg zeppelin disaster was just an unfortunate accident, but the pilot went to his grave swearing his massive airship had been sabotaged.

Members of the landing crew are shown fleeing from beneath the dirigible Hindenberg as the flaming craft, a greasy pall of smoke marking its last train, falls to the Lakehurst Landing Field.

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As Flaming Zep Settled to Earth. Lakehurst, N.J.: Members of the landing crew are shown fleeing from beneath the dirigible Hindenberg as the flaming craft, a greasy pall of smoke marking its last train, falls to the Lakehurst Landing Field. Over to the left of the photo, rescue workers, despite the hail of flaming embers, rush toward the wreck. More than fifty persons, including members of the landing crew are believed dead in the air disaster. The accident occurred as the Hindenberg was landing after its first trip to Germany.

Photo by: Bettmann via Getty

Bettmann via Getty

A crowd of people was gathered in the airfield at the Lakehurst Airpark in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, as they waited for the largest flying aircraft in the world — the LZ 129 Hindenburg — to land as it finished a transatlantic flight originating in Germany.

Airplanes were not yet a common way to travel, and the invention of the zeppelin looked like the future of air travel, especially for transatlantic flights. The Hindenberg was the pinnacle of luxury airship construction featuring two decks with passenger accommodations, promenades, dining areas, crew quarters, and cargo space. There were 97 people on board as the hydrogen-filled zeppelin approached Lakehurst.

News crews on the ground were recording audio and video as well as taking photographs as the ship approached. As the crew prepared to drop the mooring lines, the back end of the ship was suddenly engulfed in flames and it dropped to the ground as the fire spread. It took less than a minute for the massive zeppelin to become a smoldering pile of metal and spilled diesel on the ground.

Of the 97 people on board, there were only 35 deaths, some of which resulted from frightened passengers and crew members diving from windows during the crash.

The disaster launched a massive investigation into what could have happened. The Department of Justice, FBI, the National Weather Service, and the US Navy turned the Hindenburg’s stateside hangar at Lakehurst into headquarters for their inquiry.

The pilot, Max Pruss, was badly burned in the crash, but when he had recovered enough to speak with investigators, he insisted that the crash had to be sabotage. He had flown the Hindenburg more than a dozen times and was extremely familiar with the ship. Pruss, who died in 1989, always maintained that he had flown a flawless flight.

Two Possible Saboteurs

Investigators first zeroed in on Joseph Spach, a German acrobat who was returning to his wife and children on Long Island after he completed a solo European tour performing his stunts. Some of the surviving passengers reported that Spach was oddly vocal about how he was bringing home a German Shepherd dog to his family and disappeared from a common area several times claiming he had to feed the dog. The physically agile acrobat would have had the ability to climb the inside of the cargo area and potentially sabotage the hydrogen chambers, but investigators could never find any evidence implicating Spach in the crash.

A crew member was the second sabotage suspect according to a book about the disaster that was published in the 1960s. Erich Spehl was a rigger on the airship, and the motive was thought to be his anti-Nazi resistance. (Germany was already under Nazi control at the time of the Hindenburg disaster, though WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust were still years away.) Because the Hindenburg was seen as a symbol of Nazi strength and superior German engineering, Spehl’s motive in sabotaging the ship would have been to shame Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. This theory was refuted by both the Americans and the Germans.

The Most Likely Theory

Human error and an unfortunate set of circumstances likely sealed the fate of the Hindenburg. The weather that day had been particularly stormy, and the ship was about 12 hours late after navigating around the bad weather. The crew was feeling pressure to make up for lost time as the ship would be immediately boarding new passengers and returning to Europe for the coronation of King George VI.

As the crew approached the airfield, they decided they would try a high landing, which was a new technique that involved hovering the zeppelin over the ground and then dropping mooring ropes to a ground crew. The ground crew would then winch the massive ship towards the ground using the mooring ropes.

Find out what went horribly wrong on Mysteries at the Museum, available now on discovery+.

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