The crash and burn of the Hindenburg wasn’t the costliest transportation disaster in human lives, but may have been the first one covered live by the news media. Who can forget the tearful voice of the startled radio announcer or the newsreel of the great dirigible’s fiery descent? A documentary on the Hindenburg is one of several History Channel specials collected on the oddly titled six-DVD set, “Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters.”
Engineering disasters would be more to the point: episodes devoted to the demise of the Titanic and the Hindenburg show fatal flaws in the mechanical conception of both vessels. For the giant airship, the length of an ocean liner, the problem was the flammable hydrogen gas that kept it aloft. Germany’s Zeppelin company took every conceivable step to safeguard the Hindenburg from the single spark that could set the craft ablaze, but it caught fire anyway upon descent at Lakehurst, N.J. in 1937. The board of inquiry suggested that the spark flew from static electricity on the drizzle splattered airfield, but the findings proved as controversial as the Warren Report on JFK’s assassination: rumors of sabotage have persist to this day.
Much of the special is devoted to the history of airships. Their inventor, Count von Zeppelin, flew the prototype in 1900—three years before the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk—and zeppelins were sent by Germany during World War I on bombing raids over Great Britain. By the 1930s, however, the zeppelin seemed on its way to becoming the luxury trans-Atlantic passage of choice. The Hindenburg had comfortable cabins, a gourmet restaurant, a piano bar, incomparable views and was faster than any steamship. The Hindenburg’s explosion put an end to the dream.