On May 6, 1937, newsreel crews were at the Lakehurst Naval Station to record the arrival of the pride and joy of the German airship fleet, the Hindenburg. The newsreel cameras were all clustered in a mooring area facing the bow of the dirigible, so when it suddenly burst into flames claiming the lives of 35 passengers, crew and one member of the ground crew, all of the footage of the disaster captured it from the front.
The investigation into the disaster relied primarily on witness statements. The Hindenburg itself was obliterated in the conflagration, so there was no physical evidence to go on to explain the cause of the fire. German officers, including Captain Ernst Lehmann who would die of his injuries the next day, blamed the disaster on sabotage. Others speculated that power from a radio transmitter on the field was responsible; one witness bruited the possibility that high-frequency radio induction had ignited the gas. The Commerce Department report could only conclude that a gas leak in the stern of the airship had created a combustible mixture of hydrogen and air that was ignited by electrostatic discharge of some kind, but they could not determine the source of it.
An amateur videographer was also on the field that day. Harold Schenck was standing next to Hangar One with his trusty Kodak 8-millimeter camera. Unlike the news cameras, Schenck was positioned to get a broad view of the airship as it attempted to land. The film for this little cam could only record two minutes, so he took short clips that he would later put together with explanatory intertitles. He captured the Hindenburg’s approach first and filmed its full length as it burned. It is the only known footage that shows the nose and tail at the same time.
Schenck offered his footage to the Commerce Department investigators but they weren’t interested because they had all the newsreel footage already and didn’t seek out different angles. Thankfully he kept it, and so did his family after he passed away. In 2012, Dan Grossman, a historian, writer and airship expert who has studied the Hindenburg disaster for years, met Bob Schenck, Harold’s nephew, at the 75th anniversary memorial of the disaster on the Lakehurst airfield. Grossman viewed the Schenck footage and was stunned by its unique coverage and perspective of the fire.
The film has now been shown to the public for the first time in an episode of the excellent PBS show Nova. The show used it as a jumping point for a new investigation of the disaster. The episode lays out the background of the flight, the difficulties it encountered, the timeline of the disaster, putting the new footage in context. It explores the footage itself, confirming it authenticity with a film restoration expert, and explains the science behind what we see in the footage.
Every step of the investigation combines historical research and the scientific method to present a highly compelling case for what set off the deadly fire. Highlights include the curators at the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen watching the footage in amazement, and the series of experiments designed by Konstantinos Giapis, Professor of Chemical Engineering at CalTech. The Schenck film does not show the source of the spark, so Giapis experiments with various possibilities.
The end-result is genuinely exciting both from a science fair perspective and a historical one. It’s a eureka moment for sure. I won’t spoil it because it’s seriously riveting to follow the progression of the investigation. Watch this show.
You can see a sneak preview of the Schenck footage in this trailer: