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What Destroyed the Hindenburg? Theories and Myths

written by: Jason C. Chavis•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 6/28/2011

Seared into the memory of countless people, the destruction of the Hindenburg was one of the first tragedies recorded and viewed worldwide. While many of the Hindenburg disaster myths were debunked over the years, with this exposure came a long series of possible explanations for the catastrophe.

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    Oh, the Humanity!

    Hindenburg burning 

    During the 1930s, there was very few ways to traverse the Atlantic, with the most prevalent by seafaring passenger ships. With the development of the rigid airship, however, travelers were given another choice. These flying machines offered a unique way to get from one place to another and offered some of the most luxurious accommodations of the time period.

    The LZ 129 Hindenburg was no different. As the flagship of its class, the Hindenburg was widely-recognized as one of the most modern ways to travel. Measuring 803.8 feet (245 meters) and encompassing 7,062,000 cubic feet (200,000 cubic meters), the airship cut a large swath through the sky as it carried dozens of passengers serviced by the crew. In all, the airship displaced 236 tons of air with its hydrogen-filled structure.

    Launched in March 1936 by the Zeppelin Company, the Hindenburg flew 144 nonstop flights from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro and New York over the next year. During its second season of service, the airship was destroyed by fire on May 6. While the public watched over Lakehurst, New Jersey, the zeppelin suddenly burst into flames and quickly crashed to the ground. 35 people aboard the craft were killed, while one more died on the ground.

    In the days and weeks to follow, investigators determined that the hydrogen ignited, causing the disaster. However, speculation grew about the exact means by which this happened and the reason for the quick crash. Over the years, each of the Hindenburg disaster myths have been debunked through investigation and research. This does not change the fact that numerous people still believe many of them to be true.

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    Sabotage?

    Among one of the most prevalent theories for the destruction of the Hindenburg is the possibility of sabotage. According to historians, two men were primary suspects for both the FBI and German investigators: Eric Spehl, one of the airship's riggers, and Joseph Späh, an acrobat passenger. According to the theories, there was ample time for either man to plant an explosive and destroy the zeppelin. This possibility has been the focal point for a number of books and movies over the years.

    The sabotage theory is based primarily on the possibility that someone detonated a flashbulb in the ship's rear section. This destroyed one of the hydrogen gas cells, causing a chain reaction that brought the Hindenburg to the ground. The only piece of evidence to support this possibility was found by the New York Police Department's Bomb Squad. While collecting forensic evidence, a solution that was likely to be derived from a battery cell was found amongst the wreckage. Investigators at the time postulated that a battery was used to power a flashbulb.

    Much of the speculation surrounding Spehl was based on circumstantial evidence, mostly surrounding his political views. Investigated by the Gestapo, Spehl's girlfriend was known to have strong communist beliefs, causing a rift between the Nazi government of Germany at the time and himself. In addition, Spehl was one of the few with access to the section of the ship that was believed to be the origin of the explosion. Finally, the rigger also had a well-known interest in photography, making it possible for him to set up a flashbulb.

    The problems with the possibility of Spehl being a saboteur stem largely from the fact that there is no documentation regarding the discovery of the battery solution near the location of the potential explosion. In addition, due to the fact that he died in the disaster, there was no chance to question him. Since the airship was 12 hours late, it is also questionable whether he would have been trying to destroy the Hindenburg on the ground or in the air.

    The other suspected saboteur, Joseph Späh, did survive the fire, but was found to have no connection to the fire by the FBI. Again, much of the evidence pointing to Späh was purely coincidence. During the flight, he was seen telling anti-Nazi jokes to other passengers. In addition, he brought with him a German Shepherd which he had to feed during the voyage. This allowed him access to the stern, where he could have potentially planted a bomb. However, in order for him to have placed the flashbulb explosive where the spark is believed to have originated, Späh would have had to make use of his acrobatic skills and move up to a catwalk. While this is possible, no other evidence supports a motivation for sabotage.

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    A Lightning Strike

    Among the most unlikely of the Hindenburg disaster myths is the possibility of lightning striking the craft. While it is widely known that the vehicle was struck by lightning many times on its voyage across the Atlantic, the fact that the hydrogen was not mixed with oxygen means it could not have started on fire. However, during landing the hydrogen ballast is vented. If the ship was struck by lightning at this time, it would be possible to start a fire and burn the airship to the ground. This theory is sound except for the fact that there were no known lightning strikes at the time of the landing.

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    Buildup of Static Electricity

    One of the more prevalent theories for the destruction of the Hindenburg is the possibility of static discharge igniting leaking hydrogen as the airship landed. Just before making its way across land, the ship passed through a weather front of high humidity. In addition, there was a light rain over Lakehurst as the ship came in for its landing. According to historian Dr. Douglas Robinson, this front, or the rain, caused the mooring lines to get wet, making them conductive. When these lines were dropped onto the ground, it is possible that a static charge built up. This electrical spark traveled from the ground to the frame of the ship, igniting the hydrogen and starting the Hindenburg on fire. While this is scientifically possible, the likelihood of a strong enough static spark to cause this event is highly improbable.

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    A Hard Turn Leads to Engine Failure

    During its landing, the ship was placed in a hard turn in order to reach the proper location for touchdown. By doing this, one of the engines was thrown into reverse. It is possible that this engine backfired and emitted a shower of sparks. Some say this most certainly would have ignited the leaking hydrogen and caused the fire. But, like many of the other theories, this is simply a possibility and no evidence to support it has been found. Others claim it is quite impossible. The Zeppelin Company tested its engines numerous times during the Hindenburg's design process. According to its studies, the temperature needed to ignite the hydrogen would have to be 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius). Sparks from the engine only reach 482 degrees Fahrenheit (250 degrees Celsius).

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    The Flammable Paint Theory

    Perhaps the most asserted theory is that of the use of flammable paint on the outside skin of the zeppelin. Iron oxide and aluminum-impregnated cellulose acetate butyrate were used in the coating of the airship. Both of the components are used in the production of thermite. Proponents of this theory believe that the airship's fire was started due to combustion of this paint.

    While this was long thought to be a major possibility, it has been discredited countless times by simple facts and experiments. In order for the coating to act as solid rocket fuel, it would need to be 16 percent aluminum and 0.4 percent iron oxide. Neither component was used in those proportions. In addition, if the coating was flammable, it would most likely have burned in its entirety. However, the front portion of the Hindenburg still maintained some of the coating after the crash. It was also determined that if they did exist in the correct proportions, the vehicle itself would be too heavy to fly in the first place.

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    The Question Remains

    While officially the Hindenburg was brought down by ignition of the hydrogen gas, speculation continues to this day as to how it was lit in the first place. Each of the presented theories offers some form of explanation, but each can also be discredited. Through all of the Hindenburg disaster myths, people attempt to provide answers for one of the most shocking tragedies of all time.

    One thing remains true; because of the sheer terror presented in the newsreel coverage and radio presentations in 1937, the popularity of the airship as a form of travel died a quick death the day the Hindenburg burst into flames and fell from the sky.

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