Eighty years ago, this week, (May 6, 1937), The Hindenburg, the flagship of Germany's ligher than air Zeppelins, caught fire and burned in a matter of minutes while trying to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey.
At 803 feet long, the Hindenburg was four times longer than a 747.
It was orginally supposed to land on the mast atop the Empire State Building (if you ever wondered what that thing on the top was designed for). In the 1930s, many people saw Zepplin flight as the mode of transportation of the future. The Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic at twice the speed of a ship, and at a far lower cost, even if it only carried 72 passengers.
The flights must have been spectacular. The great airships quite literally floated on air and must have been almost silent. They were also designed as luxury liners, and despite the giant swastikas on the tail, they were impressive.
When originally designed, the zeppelins were supposed to be filled with inert helium gas. The only supply of helium in the world was in the United States (in Texas, to be precise), but the US had banned commercial export of helium. The German designers had originally believed that they could convince the US government to lift the ban on helium, but they could not, so the great giant gas bags were filled with hyrogen - easy to make but even easier to explode.
Prior to Lakehurst, the ship had made 36 trips, so it must have seemed relatively safe. Relatively.
As it approached the landing site in Lakehurst, the weather was bad and the Hindenburg was forced to circle four times. Finally, it neared the ground and the crew released long ropes that the ground crew was supposed to catch to pull the thing in for a final docking (much like a ship). Many theorize that the ropes acted as a ground, allowing built up static electricity to hit the ship and the nearly 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen.
In a matter of seconds it was all over.
At 7:21 PM, the hydrogen burst into flames and the airship dropped to the ground. Of the 97 people on board, 35 died. One of the ground crew was also killed, raising the death toll to 36.
The image of the burning Hindenburg was seared into the public consciousness, and probably led to the end of the age of airships. Think of this as the Titanic of the Air.
What makes this of interest to us is that two new media, just in their infancy, were there to record the landing and subsequent disaster: radio and movies.
The iconic newsreel footage was shot by four newsreel camera teams: Pathé News, Movietone News, Hearst News of the Day, and Paramount News. Al Gold of Fox Movietone News later received a Presidential Citation for his work.
Radio was also covering the landing, live. Reporter Herbert Morrison was there for WLS in Chicago.
What makes this particularly intersting to us is the media coverage.
The Hindenburg Disaster was the first 'distaster' that was filmed and recored for radio live, as it happened, and then shown to the world in newsreels or repeated on the radio, over and over.
Never before had an event like this been seen and heard by millions around the world 'as it happened'.
Today, we take this kind of immediacy and intimacy for granted. When something happens, there is an inherent expectation that it will be filmed, if not streamed live on Facebook. When turn on our TVs and are shocked if CNN or MSNBC is NOT carrying it live, with the banner BREAKING NEWS.
Often, when possible at least, disaster events are planned to match prime time audiences, such as the Shock and Awe bombing of Baghdad, carried live on CNN.
And now, in a world in which everyone carries a smart phone with a video camera with them 24 hours a day, you no longer need a reporter for a Chicago radio station or cameras from Pathe news to be there. Everyone is.