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The arrival of the Hindenburg


Posted: June 22, 2014 3:00 a.m.
Updated: June 22, 2014 3:00 a.m.

I had been standing at the Naval Air Station in New Jersey watching for the arrival everyone was waiting for.

The drive was long so I had left Chicago last evening. I was tired but my excitement was keeping me on my feet.

It was still daylight and the zeppelin was not due to arrive until close to dusk. I was there to meet the ship. My son, Herbert, a passenger on board was coming home for a visit. My name is Audrey O’Laughlin.

A cheer rose from the crowd. It was after 7 p.m. in a darkening twilight sky.

Looking off into the distance a speck could be seen moving toward us.

I stood there and watched the great object come closer to earth. Visibility would soon be a problem as the ship began to descend.

It was reported there were 97 on board this time - including crew and passengers.

I saw two landing ropes drop that were to ease her down. These would be tied to cars on the ground.

The cars were set on a circular track designed to hold the nose of the ship down at a 30 degree angle helping it jockey into a position for its mooring. They would move along on the track to guide her in.

We had been told: “There was some wind today so everything may not play out as expected. This had been done many times so not to worry.”

As we watched the ship come nearer, it suddenly burst into flames leaving the spectators in hysteria.

Screams came from everywhere. “Run for your lives.” Those who could did.

Two explosions lit up the sky. Passengers sitting close to the windows in the gondolas were vaulted or leaped out on to the ground because of the energy of the force – that jump saved some of their lives.

Me, I was thrown onto my back about 50 feet from where I was standing and slammed into the side of a mechanics shed.

When my head cleared, I realized the impossible had happened.

On the evening of May 7, 1937 at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Hindenburg had exploded.

I could not find my son. Not on the ground or in the makeshift infirmary set up in one of the hangars.

He could be in one of the back gondolas. I couldn’t get near the zeppelin it was burning like fury in hell.

I felt a chill take hold of my heart. Where was he?

I had Herb’s old bedroom all ready for him. I had prepared foods that he liked.

I asked everywhere, no one had seen him. Maybe he had been taken to a hospital and I missed him.

Then I thought, I would never see him again. I felt the hot tears starting to swell behind my eyelids. I didn’t want him to see me crying if I should come upon him suddenly.

It seemed like hours that I walked around that field. It was about 1 a.m. when, over a megaphone, a Mrs. Audrey O’Laughlin’s name was called out.

Though they couldn’t hear me I screamed, “I’m here.”

“Come to the Red Cross Station. Please, Mrs. Audrey O’Laughlin,” the megaphone blared.

Well, I ran faster than a greyhound.

When I was just about there, a man was walking out of the hangar towards me. His face was completely black and his clothes badly burnt.

“Mom?” he asked.

“Herb, is that you?”

We fell into each other’s arms. I felt such a rush of love and relief like I had never felt before.

He was alive. I could take him home.

There had been 10 intercontinental flights made in 1936 with the Hindenburg. This flight from Germany was the first this year to make the crossing.

The distressing news reached Berlin and Frankfort about 2 a.m. on the 8th.

No one knew what had caused this disaster.

They were using hydrogen and blue gas which was considered the most dangerous of all gasses for inflation of airships – as their fuel – and in the past seemed to have good luck with it. We Americans had our problems with dirigibles – mostly structural.

It was also suggested that commands necessary for the cars were not received by one of the drivers. Whatever happened, history was made that day.

Later we knew 34 were dead out of 97 passengers and crew. Many were severely and critically burned and taken to local hospitals.

The dirigible was burnt beyond belief. The screams of pain and the smell of burning flesh made a memory never to be forgotten.

Secretary Hull sent the following message to Konstantin von Neurath, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs: “ I extend to you and to the people of Germany my profound sympathy at the tragic accident to the dirigible Hindenburg and the resultant loss of life to passengers and crew.”

“It is too terrible to believe,” Admiral A.B. Cook of Naval Aeronautics wrote.

Authors note: I lived in Newark, New Jersey during those years and frequently saw the silver dirigibles sailing overhead. Everyone would go outside to view them.

When the Hindenburg blew up I remember the news reports. After that, we did not see as many coasting above us.

Herbert James O’Laughlin was a real passenger on the Hindenburg. In my story, I took the liberty of having his mother there at the disaster. She was in Chicago, and as soon as he found a phone, he called to let her know he was alive.


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