Old Time Radio

Birth of Sensational News with the Hindenburg Disaster

The Hindenburg disaster signaled the end of the airship era. The radio broadcast by Herbert Morrison and the accompanying newsreel footage paralyzed the nation, when it was broadcast the following day. Morrison’s account remains one of the most historical and sensational moments to be captured both on film and on audio.

In 1936, the German Zeppelin company built the luxury Hindenburg airship model LZ 129. With the financial backing of the Nazi regime, the company had already produced and flown other dirigibles with great success. The Graf Zeppelin had flown more than one million miles without incident. In fact, the Zeppelin company promoted their unblemished safety record in their advertisements.

Previous airship accidents went under reported and they were limited to manufacturers of British and U.S. dirigibles. The most disastrous airship accident involved the U.S. airship, USS Akron. On April 4, 1933, the airship crashed off the New Jersey coast killing 73 of the 76 crew members aboard. What made this different from the Hindenburg disaster was that this crash and others like it were not captured on film.

On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg was scheduled to arrive at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. Although there were some spectators, the majority of the crowd assembled on the ground was composed of journalists. The Hindenburg had already made history the previous year with its first transatlantic crossing. The landing at Lakehurst was the third of ten transatlantic flights scheduled for the year.

Unfortunately, the landing at Lakehurst was fraught with problems from the very beginning. Heavy headwinds had already delayed the Hindenburg’s arrival and the powerful thunderstorms in Lakehurst delayed landing even further. At 6: 22 p.m., Captain Max Pruss received the authorization to land. During the delay, he entertained the passengers with a trip over Manhattan. At 7:09 p.m., Pruss made a series of sharp turns, because the landing crew was not ready to moor the ship. Finally, at 7:21 the mooring lines were dropped from the dirigible to the ground crew.

Witnesses on the ground reported seeing what looked like gas plumes and a blue haze at around 7:25 p.m., shortly before the Hindenburg erupted in flames. Unfortunately, the moments leading up to the blaze was not captured on film. The newsreel had not been running at the time and by the time it was able to capture any footage, the Hindenburg was already ablaze. Luckily, the weather and size of the dirigible meant it could not be moored close to the observing public. If the mooring had not taken place in the field, there may have been more casualties on the ground.

In the end, one ground crew member lost his life and 13 passengers perished alongside 22 crew members aboard the airship. The ferocity of the blaze and its quick engulfment of the airship shocked those who witnessed the events on the ground. To those unfamiliar with radio and newsreel footage, the audio and film appear to have been recorded simultaneously; however, the radio broadcast was later dubbed into the newsreel footage. His commentary is also famous for its passionate and frantic account of the disaster. Part of the panicked nature of the broadcast was the result of recording speed. Although the commentary does not lose its passion or compassionate tone, the broadcast was not recorded at normal speed. Recorded at a slower speed, the commentary sounds more urgent when played back, if it is not corrected for normal speed and pitch. Nevertheless, it could be argued that Morrison’s impassioned broadcast was the first of its kind. Herbert Morrison, with his eyewitness account ushered in the era of media sensationalism.

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