The Disaster Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1937, the Hindenburg, a Zeppelin or cylindrical airship made with a rigid frame, was carrying passengers from Frankfurt, Germany, to Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Unexpectedly, the Zeppelin caught fire and crashed onto the ground during its final descent, resulting in the deaths of thirty-five individuals, including one member of the ground crew. The document included here is a transcript of Herbert Morrison's eyewitness account of the tragedy, which would play on the radio the next day. As they did not yet have a complete understanding of the technology to broadcast previously recorded events, Morrison and his partner and engineer, Charles Nehlsen, were attempting to record the events and, for the first time, broadcast them later coast-to-coast. The change of Morrison's words and tempo conveys the shock and horror that the flaming ship inspired in every witness, knowing that there was nothing to be done.

Summary Overview

In 1937, the Hindenburg, a Zeppelin or cylindrical airship made with a rigid frame, was carrying passengers from Frankfurt, Germany, to Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Unexpectedly, the Zeppelin caught fire and crashed onto the ground during its final descent, resulting in the deaths of thirty-five individuals, including one member of the ground crew. The document included here is a transcript of Herbert Morrison's eyewitness account of the tragedy, which would play on the radio the next day. As they did not yet have a complete understanding of the technology to broadcast previously recorded events, Morrison and his partner and engineer, Charles Nehlsen, were attempting to record the events and, for the first time, broadcast them later coast-to-coast. The change of Morrison's words and tempo conveys the shock and horror that the flaming ship inspired in every witness, knowing that there was nothing to be done.

Defining Moment

This radio report began as just another day for Herbert Morrison and Charles Nehlsen, but what they could not know was that, aside from the thirty-five lives lost, the crash of the Hindenburg would become the first-ever recording of a live event played as such on the radio. It was also essentially the death knell of the production and distribution of Zeppelins and dirigibles, which were now deemed too risky for commercial travel. On the day after the Hindenburg crash, May 7, 1937, Morrison was interviewed on national television, with clips from his three-hour recorded report being interspersed with the interview. This was the first time in broadcasting history that events that were recorded live were later aired for the general public. Morrison's recording further shows the difficulty inherent in seeing an event in progress and trying to describe it for others, especially through radio, which obviously has no visual component. Morrison had to describe what he was seeing, but also was personally affected by the tragedy; so his own emotions bled into the report. This was one of the first instances of “breaking news” ever recorded and showed that broadcasting styles would need to change in order to maintain a high standard of sharing information during a crisis, especially one that was happening live.

Possibly the most significant impact of this disaster, however, was the complete collapse of the airship industry. Although Zeppelins and dirigibles had been used with relative safety for over thirty years, considering the explosive nature of the gas which filled the balloon, both for German missions during World War I and later as commercial vehicles for trans-Atlantic flights, consumer confidence in these machines completely disappeared after this crash. This was not the first dirigible to catch fire, nor the most deadly (in 1933, seventy-three men were killed on the USS Akron). But it was the most spectacular, enhanced by the media coverage. Further, the cause of the disaster remains a mystery, although sabotage is highly suspected. Whatever the truth may be, dirigibles fell out of use almost entirely by 1940. It is possible that the end of dirigible era was owing in part to the public's hearing in the voice of Herbert Morrison the sheer panic and horror surrounding the event. Radio was and is a powerful tool for expressing emotion through the reporter's voice. It is as much for this reason as for its historical content that the Hindenburg broadcast is iconic in modern US history.

Author Biography

Herbert Morrison was born in 1905, grew up in Pennsylvania, and then moved to West Virginia. He married a woman from Morgantown, West Virginia, named Mary Jane Kelly, and they remained childless. Many of the years of his life were dedicated to radio and, later, television broadcasting. He passed away in Morgantown at the age of 83 in 1989, survived by his wife, who passed in 2000.

Probably the most influential moment of Morrison's professional life occurred when he was thirty-two years old, as the Hindenburg disaster unfolded before his eyes. At the time he was working for WLS radio, an NBC affiliate out of Chicago. He continued to give interviews for most of the rest of his life, his memories of the event being sought after by professionals from all media, even decades later.

Document Analysis

This document–a transcript from the audio–contains two main themes that stem directly from the event. There is calm beforehand and shock and awe as the airship bursts into flames and goes down. While the portion reproduced here is only a segment of the complete radio broadcast, it is the most dramatic segment for it shows how quickly a routine flight can change into a disaster. The whole of the radio broadcast before the crash amounts to a basic recital of events as the Zeppelin comes in for a landing. The arrival of the Hindenburg was exciting because intercontinental travel was still quite new and because the Hindenburg was kicking off a new plan, in which ten trips would be made in a single year. Plus, a German vessel bringing passengers to the United States was newsworthy in the post-World War I, pre-World War II era. (Germany under Hitler was already generating controversy abroad.) Radiomen, journalists, and spectators all came out to witness the landing.

Yet it is the last part of the report that lives on, famous for its tragic recitation. Unlike the first part, the second part conveys the horror and helplessness that bystanders must have felt as the Hindenburg crashed, turning into a fiery wreck on the ground. Although reading the transcript does not produce the same intensity as hearing the broadcast on the radio, merely seeing the changing sentence structure and diction suggests the depth of the experience. First, Morrison breaks off mid-sentence to exclaim, “it burst into flames!” Then, he starts to direct his engineer, Charlie, to ensure that the crash is recorded. His repetitive use of words, such as “crashing” and “terrible,” shows his astonishment at the affair. For a person whose livelihood depended on his way with words, he is here simply speaking what came to mind, reacting directly to events rather than carefully describing them. Then, in the third paragraph, Morrison states that he “can't even talk to people whose friends are on there.” The whole event is just too devastating to exploit, and he respects that there is nothing he can do other than watch the tragedy unfold. By the end of the recording, Morrison states that he can't breathe, and he can't talk. A combination of the smoke from the crash and his own emotional turmoil has overwhelmed him and he must remove himself from the scene.

Finally, one line stands out in the transcript: Morrison's exclamation, “Oh, the humanity,” is used to this day to express true horror (or, often enough, its sarcastic equivalent). Many television shows, books, and movies have used this expression with intentional and unintentional recall to the event that so impacted the world. Morrison's spontaneous interjection gained a life of its own and took its place among the pop culture canon, surviving long after the moment in which it was first uttered.

Essential Themes

Although fires and crashes were not unheard of in airships, overall these machines were a reasonably safe mode of transportation. They were used by several militaries, including that of the United States. The complete lack of customer confidence in airships after the Hindenburg crash, however, was not something that could be overcome. Little publicized fires and crashes aboard dirigibles used for military purposes were one thing; a highly publicized crash claiming civilian lives was another. As a result of the Hindenburg disaster, airplanes, a technology that was fast catching up with airships, emerged as the predominant mode of speedy transcontinental transport. While dirigibles, even now, remain in production (at the Graf Zeppelin plant in Germany), they are used mainly as tourist attractions and are no longer the preferred transport of the elite.

Before the Hindenburg disaster, news reports were delayed affairs, the events being described having occurred a day or more earlier and then relayed through newspapers or (edited) radio announcements to the general public. Morrison's account of the Hindenburg was possibly the first, and definitely the most famous, firsthand account of a tragedy to be broadcast as such, rather than being reworked and retold by the reporter. It was paired with newsreels of the events, so that Morrison's voice was laid over images shot at the same time at the scene. There was no editing of Morrison's audio report, no script for him to read from. In later decades, this pairing, rather than the original radio broadcast, came to be iconic. And it was increasingly recognized, after the disaster, that reporters should be allowed to share immediately their reactions to important or tragic events. Even though “extra” editions of newspapers eventually permitted consumers of the news to learn of events more quickly, radio and, later, television pioneered in fast delivery of the news, ultimately producing live reports from the field.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Jackson, Robert. Airships: A Popular History of Dirigibles, Zeppelins, and Other Lighter-Than-Air Craft. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. Print.
  • Lehmann, Ernst A., & Howard Mingos. The Zeppelins; the Development of the Airship, with the Story of the Zeppelin Air Raids in the World War. New York: J.H. Sears & Co., 1927. Print.
  • National Geographic Television & Film. Hindenburg. New York: Films Media Group, 2012. Film.
  • “Herbert Morrison, 83, Hindenburg Reporter.” New York Times. 10 Jan. 1989. Web. 23 Aug. 2014.
Categories: History Content