Sunday, September 28, 2014

In memoriam: Werner Franz of the Hindenburg

I note in the Telegraph's obituary column that Werner Franz, the last survivor of the crew of the Hindenburg airship, died recently.

As a 14-year-old cabin boy, Werner Franz was the youngest member of the Hindenburg’s 60-strong crew when the hydrogen-filled Zeppelin caught fire and crashed at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6 1937. Of the 97 people on board, 36 passengers and crew and one person on the ground were killed when the airship crashed in an enormous fireball.

. . .

He had been clearing the dinner dishes in the officer’s mess when, at 7.25pm, he heard a thud and felt the airship shake. The Hindenburg lurched, and its nose began tilting upwards. “Directly overhead there were flames,” Werner Franz remembered.

One memorable photograph of the disaster shows the airship buckling as a fireball rises from its back. Near the nose of the ship, what looks like a spray of water escaping was actually a torrent from the Hindenburg’s ruptured water tanks. Werner Franz believed that getting drenched when they burst protected him from the flames and heat and may have saved his life.

(Click the image for a larger view)

“At first I was shocked, but the water brought me back,” he recalled at a commemoration ceremony in 2004. Gripping both sides of a picture window as the airship sank towards the ground, he kicked open a service hatch used to load provisions, swung his feet out and jumped. He can be seen in newsreel footage of the disaster, leaping the few feet to the ground, and running for his life. “I was doing it instinctively. I didn’t think,” he said.

His timing could hardly have been better. The airship was just low enough to allow Franz to land on a canvas ballast bag, which cushioned his fall, but high enough for him to dash beneath the port side of the airship before it collapsed on the ground in a burning mass. Having jumped clear of the Hindenburg, Franz ran for his life away from the blazing wreckage, as the flames were driven in his direction by the wind. As a result he escaped with singed eyebrows and soaking wet clothes; otherwise he had barely a scratch.

The day after the disaster, as a US Navy search team picked through the smoking wreckage, Werner Franz asked them to look for his pocket-watch, a present from his grandfather. It was found amid the debris, a mangled scrap of blackened metal but still ticking.

There's more at the link.

Apparently one of the passengers on board the Hindenburg, Werner Doehner (who was 8 years old at the time), is still alive in California.  However, Mr. Franz was the last survivor of the crew.  May he rest in peace.


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