Lakehurst

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The site of the crash of the Hindenburg, May 6, 1937

What is remembered? Are you? Am I? And if either of us is, do we get to decide how? Or is that left up to those same timeless forces that drive us to the strange crossroads of our lives? That is, do we have no more control over our legacies than we have over our lives? I don’t know.

I am standing on a lonely windy field in the Pine Barrens, a field that reminds me of those endless stretches of flyover that Easterners take great pride in not being able to name, a field that is hardly thought of by any beyond the nearby town or those stationed here at the Naval Base. But this is where the Hindenburg crashed, in less time than it took you to read these two paragraphs.

You can’t imagine how big it was. They will tell you numbers as you stand at the memorial and it will all be meaningless to you. They may say that it was only 80 feet shorter than the Titanic, but what does that mean? They may say it was eight hundred feet long but who can grasp that, really? It is not until you stand in the hangar that was built for it that you begin to understand, and you are literally stunned. The hangar – in which the Hindenburg barely fit – is enormous. It’s colossal. It could house three 747s. It’s more than thirteen stories tall. And as you get dizzy looking at the ceiling, you begin to imagine something this big crashing from the sky in a burning, twisting heap. Because it’s like that, like a building dropping from the sky. A lighter than air building that was no longer lighter than air.

The trip across the Atlantic had been surreal – a vast grey mist enveloped them as they hovered over an unseeable ocean. Maine had been no better, enshrouded by thick fog, and the weather had only broken briefly as they sailed across Manhattan, allowing them a moment to wave at the tourists on the Observation deck of the Empire State Building as they made their way down to Lakehurst to land.

But Lakehurst could not take them yet. The wind was whipping at 23 knots, and so they were advised to ride out the storm by heading to the shore, sailing over the beaches at Toms River, Seaside Heights, Asbury Park. At five Commander Rosendahl, who was in charge at Lakehurst, ordered the 92 navy and 139 civilian personnel out onto the field to receive the Hindenburg. At 6 came the heavy rains that drove them all back in doors. At 6:12 the skies began to clear and Rosendahl signaled for the Hindenburg to come in. No response. Two more messages. Finally word that they were at Forked River, 14 miles to the south. And then at 7:00 they see her, up from the southwest, passing over the site.

But time was running out. The next storm was coming in fast. Pruss makes a full speed turn to the left to circle the field. By 7:11 he is down to 590 feet, still at full speed. At 7:14 he’s dropped another 200 feet, and begins to slow down finally as he approaches the mast. At 7:18, he makes an uncharacteristically fast and sharp turn to finally line up with the mooring tower, and many people now think that this probably caused a bracing wire to snap, slicing open one of the rear cells, releasing hydrogen. The tail begins to drag uncharacteristically as they descend, so they drop ballast once, twice, three times. Now the mooring lines hit the soaked Lakehurst landing field, grounding the ship. And then there’s a flash. And the rest is history.

It’s practically standing still now. They’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and they’ve been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It’s starting to rain again. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just enough to keep it from — It’s burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it! Watch it! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! It’s on 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… this is terrible; this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh my Jesus! Its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it — it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’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 can’t even talk… Their friends are out there! It’s — I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. It’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. And everybody can hardly breathe. And the screaming! 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.

And that was it. It was over. The Hindenburg. Air travel by Zeppelin. Even Lakehurst – who never asked to be remembered this way. Who barely is. All of it, in 34 seconds.

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~ by martinbihl on November 14, 2008.

One Response to “Lakehurst”

  1. That was very well told. Thank you for the interesting post.

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