- Hindenburg: The Untold Story
Hindenburg: The Untold Story known in Germany as Das Geheimnis der Hindenburg (The Secret of the Hindenburg) and Die Hindenburg: die ungeklärte Katastrophe, is a two-hour docudrama about the disaster of the Hindenburg, and the investigation that followed. It aired on May 6, 2007 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the disaster. It was commissioned by Channel 4, ZDF, and the Smithsonian Networks to be produced by Pioneer Productions and has also aired on Discovery Channel Canada. Its original working title was Hindenburg and is also known as Hindenburg: Titanic of the skies (which should not be confused with Titanic of the Sky, a different documentary by Vidicom).
It provides a reenactment of the Hindenburg Disaster using a detailed computer animated model. The animation was done by Red Vision, which also did the animation for two previous documentaries on the Hindenburg Disaster: Hindenburg Disaster: Probable Cause and an episode of Seconds From Disaster. The film also reenacts the investigation of the disaster, which is the main focus of the film. The documentary also features interviews with the only two survivors alive today, Werner Franz and Werner Doehner, and one of the only living ground crew members, Max Coleman. It was filmed in Poland.
It is May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg the largest aircraft ever built, flies into the United States with 97 on board. Its arrival and landing were delayed for over 12 hours due to bad weather. At 7:11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Saving Time, the Hindenburg approached the landing field at Lakehurst, New Jersey. What was about to happen would become the focus of an intense investigation.
While ground crew grab the ropes, one of them shouts "Look! What's that?!" pointing to the fabric at the top of the ships, which seems to be fluttering.
"The back motors of the ship are just holding it, um, just enough to keep it from......", says Herb Morrison (played by Gerard Monaco).
It was 7:25. Suddenly, the ship explodes.
"It's bursting to flames! It's bursting to flames and it's falling it's crashing! Watch it! Watch it! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Oh my Jesus it's flames now, crashing oh! Four or five hundred feet into the sky and it... Oh the humanity! All the passengers screaming around here!"
Fire completely engulfed the Hindenburg in 34 seconds, taking the lives of 35 of the 97 people on board and one member of the ground crew. In Graz, Austria Dr. Hugo Eckener (played by Malcolm Tierney), the builder of the Hindenburg, is notified about the disaster.
"Even though the Germans may have made as much haste as possible..."
"The ship seemed to collapse down on..."
"And then it made a sharp turn..."
But as more testimonies were made, less was understood.
The evidence would need piecing together from a person who knew the ship closely.
Dr. Eckener arrives at Lakehurst to investigate the disaster. Eckener is determined to find out who, or what, destroyed the Hindenburg.
"How could anyone have survived that inferno? I owe it to the survivors and the dead to turn tragedy into reason."
As he listened to the testimonies, one of them caught his attention.
Testimony of R. H. Ward:
"A couple of seconds before the fire, my attention was taken by a noticeable fluttering on the top port side. No smoke or other disturbance accompanied the flutter when I first saw it. It was a wave motion, the flutter could not have been caused by the slipstream or resonance of the propeller. It was like there was some gas action inside. It was like gas was rising and escaping."
Dr. Eckener believed this to be a vital piece in the jigsaw of what had gone wrong, but he thought that the reporters were less convinced. They were saying "This [investigation] is way too technical. All we want to know is who did it."
As Eckener talks with the badly burned Albert Sammt, the first officer, he tells him that the ship was tail heavy as it approached Lakehurst. As the ship approached the field attempts were made to correct this but the ship was still dropping. A sharp turn to the right was made as the ship slowed down. As Eckener looks at the newsreel footage of the landing, he feels that the tail seems to sink as the Hindenburg makes the sharp turn.
It was time for Dr. Eckener to give testimony.
“ With regard to the causes surrounding this occurrence, we must give consideration to all the possibilities. However, starting with what is known, we can all agree that the fire began on the upper stern section of the ship. From this we can conclude that there must have been an abnormal build-up of gas at the rear which would have been ignited by some spark.
It has been suggested that lightning would have caused such ignition. However, witnesses described that the fire appeared as a wave motion along the top of the ship. In my opinion that could not have been caused by lightning. Also there were no sightings of lightning near the ship. I believe that the fire was not caused by an electrical spark, but by a static spark. Let me explain.
A thunderstorm front had passed before the ship came in to land. However if one observes more closely at the registration of winds and pressure, one can see that this storm front must have been followed by a smaller storm front.
And if this was not observed at the field it is quite natural! Because attention was focused on the landing of the ship.
I believe that the tail-end storm front created the conditions suitable for static sparks to occur.
It may seem strange that the fire did not occur the moment the landing ropes had touched the ground, because that is when the ship would have been earthed. I believe there is an explanation for this. When the ropes were first dropped they were very dry, and poor conductors. Slowly however they got dampened by the rain that was falling and the charge was slowly equalized. Thus the potential difference between the ship and the overlying air masses would have been sufficient enough to generate static electricity. The Hindenburg would have acted as a giant kite, close to the storm clouds, collecting a static spark.
I am convinced, that a leak must have occurred in the upper rear section of the ship. My assumption is confirmed by the remarkable observations by one of the witnesses. He described seeing a peculiar flutter as if gas was rising and escaping. If I were to be asked to explain what had caused this abnormal build-up of gas, I could only make to myself one explanation.
The ship proceeded in a sharp turn during its landing maneuver. This would have generated extremely high tension in the sections close to the stabilizing fins, which are braced by shear wires. I suspect that under such tension one of these wires may have broken and caused a rip in one of the gas cells. The gas then filled up the space between the cell and the outer cover, which is why the ship sank at the rear. This accumulated amount of gas was then ignited by a static spark. This was not lightning but a small static spark, enough to ignite free gas in the rear.
Eckener initially blames the Captains Pruss and Lehmann as well as Commander Rosendahl for the rush of the landing. Pruss made the sharp turn under pressure from Lehmann and Rosendahl had called the ship in.
But in his heart, Eckener believed he was the one who could have averted this tragedy. The deaths of 36 people were down to a decision he made eight years earlier. Eckener was allowed the chance to use helium when he was given the chance at Capitol Hill in 1929, but decided against it because he thought it was too expensive. The only other person who knew about the secret was Captain Lehmann, who died in the disaster. This was before the Nazis came into power.
Dr. Eckener chose to go on with hydrogen. But helium would not have burned. He would not have been staying in Lakehurst staring at the 36 names on the board. 36 names to remind him of his guilt.
Eckener flashes back to the disaster, and imagine how it might have happened, starting with the sharp turn, gas leak, and then the explosion. Then there is a reenactment of the whole fire sequence from the beginning to the end. Living survivors tell their stories of how they made it out of the burning ship.
The film ends with the end of the Golden Age of airships and new aircraft which is far more deadly (footage of World War II is shown).
- Dr. Hugo Eckener: Malcolm Tierney
- Commander Rosendahl: Mark McGann
- Herbert Morrison: Gerard Monaco
- Joseph Späh: Simon Lowe
- Nelson Morris: Michael Praed
- Chief Steward Henrich Kubis: Thorston Manderlay
- Werner Franz: Kamil Krawczykowski
- Helmut Lau: Piotr Grabowski
- Rudolph Sauter: John Edmondson
- Colonel South Trimble (miscredited without Jr.): Phil Goss
- Often there are fake newsreels showing the disaster, though the footage is real. These are fake as the narrator for all newsreels are shown as the same for all three newsreel companies, even though it uses the opening part of an actual newsreel of the disaster (Universal Newsreel, Movietone News Special). Also the footage does not match the proper newsreel, as the "Universal" one uses footage originally from the Pathé coverage of the disaster.
- The Hindenburg appears to have crashed on solid concrete and grass. In reality the landing field was wet and sandy on the day of the disaster.
- The newsreel cameramen do not stand on van roofs to film the disaster when the real newsreel cameramen stood on top of van roofs.
- The scale model used during the inquiry has the markings on the ship one panel too low and the upper fin being curved too much downwards.
- Most investigators believe that the sharp turn to port had caused a bracing wire to snap, not the turn to starboard (which is often seen in newsreels as a sharp turn).
- Some of the ways that the passengers survive is slightly inaccurate. Albert Sammt escaped with his hat on, but in this documentary he does not have his hat on. Lehmann also had his hat on when he escaped. Margaret Mather escapes with no scratches. In reality her hands were burned. Werner Franz has some small cuts on his head, but in reality, he never had any sort of injury at all.
- The film incorrectly states that Max Coleman is the only living ground crew member. However, Robert Buchanan, another ground crew member, is still alive. It is also uncertain if Coleman is still alive as the last time he was interviewed he was very sick, according to historian Rick Zitarosa.
- The chairman of the investigation is erroneously referred to as Col. South Trimble, when it was actually Col. South Trimble Jr.
- The flag draped behind the commission has 50 stars, but the American flag at the time of the disaster would have only had 48.
- Eckener did not make a decision to use hydrogen. The Hindenburg was designed to use hydrogen bladders enclosed within a helium envelope, but with the rise of Nazi Germany, the United States government would not release the helium for the Hindenburg. The United States had the only large quantities of helium at the time.
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