May 6, 2012 marked the 75th anniversary of the Hindenburg Disaster, when the German passenger airship LZ (Luftschiff Zeppelin) #129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Newsreel footage, photographs, and the recorded radio eyewitness report of Herbert Morrison have all left their indelible imprint on what is arguably the most famous catastrophe in the history of the Garden State. And, Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness account is almost as memorable as Russ Hodges’ call of Bobby Thompson’s homerun winning the National League pennant for the New York Giants in 1951.
Steeped in mystery, the Hindenburg’s demise has yet to be conclusively explained. Conspiracy theorists believe that sabotage caused the airship’s destruction.
If sabotage did indeed cause the disaster, two potential candidates present themselves. One was a passenger and survivor of the disaster, Joseph Späh. A German acrobat, Späh brought a German Shepherd on the trip as a surprise for his children. During the trip, he made a number of unaccompanied trips to a freight room in the stern of the craft – purportedly to feed the dog. This provided him the opportunity to sabotage the airship.
The other potential saboteur was a crew member, Eric Spehl – a rigger on the airship who died as a result of the disaster. Suspicions regarding Spehl stem from his access to an area of the ship from which the fire emanated, the Communist, anti-Nazi leanings of his girlfriend, and reputed post-disaster investigation of his potential involvement with the Gestapo. Spehl’s speculated conspiracy to destroy the craft became the subject of A.A. Hoehling’s 1962 book Who Destroyed the Hindenburg?. Ten years later, Michael MacDonald Mooney’s book, The Hindenburg, based heavily on Hoehling’s sabotage hypothesis, also identified Spehl as the saboteur. Mooney’s book was made into the major motion picture The Hindenburg.
Of course, more mundane, less salacious explanations have been posited – including static spark, lightning, engine failure, incendiary paint, and fuel leak hypotheses. In recent years, the Discovery Channel program MythBusters evaluated the incendiary paint and hydrogen (fuel leak) hypotheses.
Yet, as is the case with many events in history, it is likely that the cause of the Hindenburg Disaster that claimed 35 lives will remain unsolved.