It’s been 84 years since the Hindenburg disaster took place in New Jersey.
The German passenger airship caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock at Naval Air Station Lakehurst on May 6, 1937. Thirty-seven people died in the accident.
A documentary by “Nova” called “Hindenburg: The New Evidence” will premiere at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 19, on New Mexico PBS Channel 5.1. It is available to stream on the PBS Video App.
Gary Tarpinian is an executive producer on the project and says the new findings are extraordinary.
“It also says to me, as a producer, don’t let anyone tell you that there’s nothing new to be learned,” Tarpinian says. “We’re happy to be the ones that show the world something new on this tragic accident.”
For over 80 years, the cause of the spark that brought down the Hindenburg has eluded experts.
Theories about the airship’s fire ranging from deliberate sabotage to a spark generated by the stormy conditions are known.
Despite two official investigations into the accident — one American and one German — what sparked the fire has largely remained a mystery.
But newly discovered amateur footage of the crash shows the airship’s final seconds from a fresh angle — allowing historians for the first time to see the airship from nose to tail just after the fire breaks out.
Helming the new investigation are Lt. Col. Jason O. Harris, an Air Force veteran and commercial airline pilot trained in accident investigation, and aviation historian Dan Grossman, a bestselling author and world-renowned authority on Hindenburg and the 1937 investigations.
Their inquiry leads them from the Lakehurst, New Jersey, airfield where the Hindenburg crashed to the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen in Germany to a Caltech laboratory in Pasadena.
“Thanks to this stunning new footage, we were able to revive a cold case investigation surrounding one of the most iconic disasters of the 20th century,” Tarpinian says.
The original investigations into the Hindenburg crash concluded that the fire was a result of leaking hydrogen ignited by a spark, though the specific cause of the spark itself was never determined. Eyewitness accounts suggested that the fire started near the tail of the aircraft, but supporting evidence was hard to find. There’s no film capturing the moment of ignition — the press recordings of the disaster begin after the fire is well underway — and most physical evidence was destroyed immediately in the blaze. For over 80 years, the origin of the spark that doomed the Hindenburg has remained elusive — what exactly caused it, and where in the ship it occurred, both lost to history.
Tarpinian says film shot on an 8mm Kodak camera by an amateur cameraman named Harold Schenck was discovered recently.
Never seen by the original investigators, his footage shows the crash from a much wider angle, and crucially, captures Hindenburg’s landing approach, including the release of the ship’s landing ropes, which hit the ground four minutes before the fire began.
Although the footage does not show what ignited the hydrogen — the spark that doomed the Hindenburg — it does offer key clues.
After verifying the footage’s authenticity with experts, the team then reached out to Konstantinos Giapis, professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, to conduct specially designed experiments addressing the origin of the spark and the ropes’ conductivity. The rigorous tests result in the most compelling theories to date about how, where, and why the spark occurred and why it just so happened to be at the one spot where hydrogen was leaking.
“Our footage is the only known footage, and when you watch it, you see it crash, and it’s gone in 30 seconds,” he says. “One of the things that amazed me about this story is there were 97 people on board. This event was sort of the beginning of modern news.”
Tarpinian says the team is excited to bring to light the new evidence.
“The Hindenburg remains vivid in our collective memories all these years later because of the searing images and film of the explosion. Today, we are sadly accustomed to seeing catastrophic disasters unfold on screen, but for the public then, it was a completely novel experience,” says Chris Schmidt, “Nova” co-executive producer. “We feel honored to share this new footage with the world and to bring the “Nova” audience behind the scenes of this pivotal new investigation into the crash.”