“Oh The Humanity!”

Today is the anniversary of one of the most vividly recalled disasters in U.S. history.  On May 6, 1937, the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg, a flying equivalent of The Titanic,  burst into flames while trying to dock with its mooring mast at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The conflagration was captured in spectacular and now iconic newsreel footage, as well as in dozens of photographs.

Many  are surprised to learn that there were only were 35 fatalities in the explosion, 13 passengers and 22 crewmen,  among the 36 passengers and 61 crewmen on board (There was one fatality on the ground). The accident looked far more horrible than it was.

The appearance of the accident was so spectacular that it ended the passenger airship business That’s a  classic example of the Barn Door Fallacy, in which the reaction to  predictable and often inevitable disasters leads to  emotional over-reactions, as if by retroactively making an event impossible it can be reversed. Airships were a safe mode of travel (and a luxurious one: remember “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”?) in good weather when they were filled with Helium. The Hindenburg and other German Zeppelins used highly flammable hydrogen, making them flying tinderboxes, just waiting for a spark. But once the fireball that the ship became was gasped at world wide, no  explanations could make the visceral image recede. Nobody wanted to get on those things again.

Another ethics aspect of the event is the famous on-the-scene description of the disaster by radio journalist Herbert Morrison, an instance of a professional losing his composure when special competence was most required. Morrison, who like everyone else was unprepared for what transpired, dissolved into tears and gibberish as he watched the flames, although he did manage to utter a quote for the ages: “Oh the humanity!” Here is a transcript of Morrison’s coverage:

It’s practically standing still now they’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and (uh) they’ve been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It’s starting to rain again; it’s… the rain had (uh) slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it (uh) just enough to keep it from…It’s burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast and all the folks between it. This is terrible; this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it’s… [unintelligible] its flames… Crashing, oh! oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. There’s smoke, and there’s flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here! I told you; it – I can’t even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t. Listen, folks; I… I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed!

Sixteen-inch green lacquer disk recordings of Morrison’s broadcast were rushed to Chicago by plane and replayed nationally by the NBC Radio network the next day, making Morrison’s the first broadcast ever of the recording of a news event and also the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast. It also stands as confounding irony: Morrison’s worst performance as a professional is the only aspect of his career that is remembered, and is also the only reason his own memory endures.

I have written here before that Morrison’s meltdown has become the new normal in 21st Century broadcast journalism, in which journalists signaling their own feelings about the events they are supposed to covering dispassionately and objectively is not only tolerated but encouraged. It is possible, however, that the announcer wasn’t quite as hysterical as he sounded. Some tech experts have argued that the original recording was made at slightly too slow a speed, resulting in Morrison’s voice sounding more high  pitched, rushed and hysterical than it really was. The counter argument is that his broadcast appeared to track perfectly with the newsreels of the event:

It seems strange that Morrison, who died in 1989, never said that his voice was distorted on the recording.

Well, one fortunate aspect of revisiting the tragedy is that I have an excuse to once again post my favorite meme…

It makes me smile every time.

13 thoughts on ““Oh The Humanity!”

  1. The Hindenberg disaster is interesting because of the causes of the disaster.

    (1) We wouldn’t sell helium to the Nazis. We had large helium reserves, but we refused to sell them because, well, you don’t want to allow a potential enemy to have lighter-than-air transatlantic capable bombers, do you?
    (2) Because of ‘German Engineering’. The Germans coated the outside of their dirigibles with thermite. Many people have excused this, saying no one knew how dangerous that was, but that is ridiculous. Thermite was widely used to weld large objects in the 19th century. This is why the fire on the Hindenburg burned along the outside 1st. Hydrogen can’t burn without oxygen. The thermite burned, allowing the hydrogen to escape and mix with the oxygen in the atmosphere. There probably wouldn’t have been a problem without the thermite.

    • Also growing up in Miami, Florida, we saw the Goodyear blimp all the time. It wintered in Miami and was moored at the blimp base on one of the causeways between Miami and Miami Beach. It would fly around over the city at night to display advertising in programmed lights that would course across each of its sides. The engines were pretty low-powered and turned at a pretty high r.p.m. which made the sound very distinctive. Plus, it moved so much slower than winged aircraft it was easy to get outside in time to see it. Even our infant daughter knew the sound and would point at the sky and say urgently, “The Blah! The Blah!” When my brother and I were kids, my Aunt took us on a ride on the blimp. I have no idea how much it cost. We sat in the gondola behind the pilots on lawn chairs that were bolted to the floor. The ascent was made at a terrifyingly steep angle, well past forty-five degrees and seemed almost vertical, but the rest of the ride was incredibly gentle.

      Blimps were stationed at the Richmond Naval Air Station south of Miami during WWII and flew submarine spotting patrols over the Gulfstream. My mother recalled being able to see the orange glow of torpedoed freighters burning off the shore most nights. The hangar at the Richmond NAS was wood and burned to the ground sometime in the ‘fifties, leaving only the huge, monolithic, concrete frame of the hangar door standing in the Dade County pines. The CIA evidently operated a listening base there in the ‘sixties that was staffed by Cuban refugees who snooped on broadcasts and communications in Cuba.

      I don’t think the Hindenburg killed dirigible travel, I think the fact they needed good weather killed them. I remember talking to my HS English teacher’s husband who’d flown the Hump in C-47s saying the most critical aspect of jet engines was they allowed you to just fly OVER the weather.

  2. But they were filthy Nazi trash who deserved to burn alive, right? In just a few years they would be forcing Jews to climb trees at gun point while clucking like chickens then chopping down the trees to kill them. Evil evil Nazis.

  3. The meme is also a personal fav. I can’t hear the word “humanity” without substituting anymore.

    But to get back to one of your points regarding the impassioned journo, a live and spectacular event like this must be different? Not everyone can channel Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday, and even Cronkite flinched after announcing the news of JFK. And he didn’t witness it live.

    Surely, there are situations that get a pass?

    • Not from me. Such extraordinary situations are where Professionals are supposed to show their value and special training. It’s like saying a soldier should be excused for turning and running when the battle becomes unusually tough, or a doctor can pass out when a patient starts to bleed excessively. Walter just wiped a tear from his eye annoucing JKF’s death, a glimpse of humanity for sure, but there was no faltering in his account. What if Cronkite had done a Morrison, and started blubbering, “Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen… Honest: He’s DEAD, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody is crying and…. I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step away, I can’t bear it. This is terrible!”

      But that’s what Don Lemon would do today, and still keep his job.

      • Interesting, though in your other examples all the individuals receive specific training. Lots of my friends who went to med school talk about the fellow students who hit the floor: they get weeded out. I don’t know what training scenarios a student would get in this field (broadcast journalism, I guess, as that was Lemon’s major according to Wikipedia).

        The Hindenburg disaster was extraordinary and the speech extemporaneous. Cronkite was not live narrating the Dallas parade and I wonder what that would have sounded like? Certainly the narration of the killing of Oswald by Ruby was calm and understated but no one was emotionally invested in Oswald.

        A more recent and more similar scenario to Morrison’s may be the coverage of the events of 9/11 and the fall of the second tower. Even then, people were prepared and I don’t recall much emotional, first person insinuation into that coverage. I guess what I’m trying to say is I haven’t found an exact parallel yet.

        • Some journalists are trained, just as some public officials are trained. The distinguishing feature of professionals is that they federally dedicate their lives to serving the public rather than selfish motives, and that they have standards of conduct. Journalists do have standards of conduct…they just ignore them. They are not licensed, because the Constitution would forbid that. That’s a loophole, true. It doesn’t justify poor performance, or blatant partisanship.

          You’re right that it’s hard to find an exact parallel, but that’s why professionals are considered special. They fall back on their standards when the unprecedented occurs.

          I once wrote (and performed) a comedy skit in which FDR goes on the radio after Pearl Harbor and freaks out. Roosevelt, as you know, was famous for never losing his cool (in part, I suspect, because he was a sociopath.) But imagine if in that speech he had said, “This time we DO have something to fear! This is the worst disaster in history! We’re doomed I tell you! Doomed! AGGGHHGHHGHHGHGH!”

  4. An animated TV series, Archer, made reference to the Hindenburg and how people are irrationally scared of all airships, even after having the causes of the fire explained to them. One of the characters is certain that the airship they’re on will explode, despite having the captain explain to him that it’s filled with helium, a noble gas that doesn’t burn. Guess it’s another example of how one bad event can ruin years of good will.

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