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.