It was 72 years ago today that the Hindenburg caught fire, resulting in the deaths of 36 people (35 onboard and one on the ground). So why did it catch fire in the first place? Nearly three-quarters of a century later, we still don’t know. But there are some theories out there, and here are a few of them.
This one is for all of the conspiracy theorists out there, but it was widely believed to be the culprit at the time thanks to three pretty credible believers in the theory: Hugo Eckener (pictured), who used to be the head of the Zeppelin company; Charles Rosenthal, commander of the Lakehurst Naval Air Station; and Max Pruss, the Hindenburg’s commander. When Eckener heard the zeppelin had “exploded,” he immediately thought that someone had intentionally destroyed the airship. Pruss found it hard to believe that something as petty as static would ignite the fabric of the Hindenburg; he said he personally had piloted airships through thunderstorms and that they had even been struck by lightning with no ill effects. So who would have done such a terrible thing? A couple of books have named the zeppelin’s rigger, Eric Spehl. The fire started in an area that he and his fellow riggers had exclusive access to, and another rigger reported seeing a flash like a flashbulb just before the whole thing went up in flames. Spehl’s hobby – amateur photography – made it seem likely that he knew which types of flash could serve as an igniter. Another suspect was a passenger named Joseph Späh, a German acrobat who was traveling with his dog, Ulla. He drew suspicion because of his many trips to the freight room by the ship’s stern, supposedly to feed his dog. Stewards said he seems particularly irritated that the flight was running late, and others speculated that his acrobatic career would make it easy for him to climb around in the catwalks to plant a bomb. Späh was cleared and Spehl died in the fire, so we’ll never know if one of them was responsible. One rumor even said that Hitler ordered the disaster because Hugo Eckener was anti-Nazi. Why the theory is probably wrong: Even Eckener changed his mind: when he later watched the tapes and learned that the ‘Burg had burned, not exploded, he reversed his theory to the static spark theory (see below). And no evidence of a bomb was ever found in the wreckage. They did find some yellow substance originally believed to be sulfur, which can ignite hydrogen, but it was later determined that it was probably just residue from a fire extinguisher, and none of the residue was found anywhere near the stern of the ship.
You know how when it’s particularly dry, you can shuffle along your carpet and shock the crap out of someone sitting on the couch? Same theory, but bigger. The Hindenburg was really behind on its flight schedule – more than 12 hours, in fact. To try to make up for lost time, they flew directly through a storm front with lots of humidity and electrical charge. Between that and a light rain falling at Lakehurst, the mooring lines probably got a bit wet. When they touched down to land, the lines would have grounded the frame they were connected to, but not the fabric stretched around the frame. So when the static electricity sparked, the fabric went up in flames. Another sub-theory is that hydrogen gas was in the air, perhaps due to a leak, and the static spark ignited the gas. Both of these seem pretty plausible when you consider that historian Douglas Robinson recorded an eyewitness account from one of the passengers saying that he saw St. Elmo’s fire just before the fire fully broke out. Not the ‘80s movie starring Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, the actual electrical weather phenomenon. He had enough time to tell his wife, “Oh, heavens, the thing is afire,” and showed her where the St. Elmo’s fire was occurring before the fabric ignited.
Coming from such a credible source – the former director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center – this one seems like it could be true as well. He says it’s not the fact that the ship was struck by lightning that was its downfall – the ship had been struck before and it was fine. It’s because it was landing as it was hit. As it landed, the Hindenburg dispelled hydrogen to lessen its weight and land. The hydrogen mixed with the oxygen in the air and the lightning ignited the fumes. Why it could be wrong: The fire appeared in a wave motion, which Eckener believed was more apt to happen with a static spark than a lightning bolt.
Mythbusters tackled this one and declared it Busted, but I’ll tell you the theory anyway. The fabric (pictured) around the Hindenburg’s frame had been painted with what they called “dope,” a substance that made the fabric stiff and airtight. However, the substances it was made of were highly flammable in liquid form and still pretty unstable even when dry. The Incendiary Paint Theory says that the volatile substances reacted and caused the spark. Why the theory is probably not true: The “dope,” which is actually cellulose acetate butyrate, is classified as burning easily if it catches fire, but it doesn’t actually ignite easily and will self-extinguish if there isn’t an external source keeping it burning. Some of the fabric survived the fire, which leads experts to believe the fabric didn’t actually start the fire. The Mythbusters test found just that – while the stuff used to paint the skin was definitely flammable, it wasn’t enough to ignite and destroy the Hindenburg all on its own.
It’s easy enough to believe: one of the bracing wires came loose, snapped, and punctured one of the internal gas cells. This would have caused the hydrogen leak believed to have happened in other theories. Then the static spark theory would have happened, igniting the fumes from the punctured cell. It’s also thought that when the wire struck the cell, it caused a spark which ignited the fire.
The Indiana Jones Theory
Turns out this guy didn't have a ticket, and a fight ensued, and in the melee a gas tank got punctured. Sorry, I couldn't resist.