Obit of the Day: The Last Surviving Crewmember of the Hindenburg
Werner Franz was in the crew’s mess aboard the Hindenburg cleaning dishes and preparing for landing in the town of Lakehurst, NJ on May 6, 1937. As the zeppelin approached the ground an explosion ripped through the tail section, sending the nose of the world’s largest airship suddenly upward, throwing dishes off shelves all around Mr. Franz. Then a water ballast tank ruptured soaking the 14-year-old cabin boy.
As the hydrogen-filled* blimp continued to explode, Mr. Franz made his way to a hatch door, kicked it out and jumped safely to the ground. He managed to escape without a scratch.
Others were not so lucky. Of the 97 passengers aboard 35 were killed in the crash, while a member of the landing crew also died. The fact that more than half the passengers survived seems incredible since the Hindenburg was completely destroyed in about 30 seconds.
Mr. Franz was part of the Hindenburg from its maiden voyage having joined the crew as a way to help his parents financially. During his time on board the Hindenburg, the fastest airship in the world at the time, Mr. Franz crossed the Atlantic on 18 round-trips from Frankfurt, Germany to the U.S. and Brazil. At a time where passenger planes were slow, small, and required constant refueling, the Hindenburg could make the transatlantic voyage in just 2-3 days, faster than an ocean liner.
But even the tragedy could not damper Mr. Franz’s love of air travel. After testifying at a U.S. hearing on the disaster, he approached an official of the German air ministry and asked “When the next Zeppelin is ready, may I fly again with her?” But the Hinderburg was the last of its kind, with the Nazis shutting down the program after the accident^.
Returning to Germany, Mr. Franz would later join the Luftwaffe as a radio operator. After the war he worked for the post office and also became a well-known ice skating coach. (One of his students, Marika Kilius, would go on to win two Olympic silver medals.)
Werner Franz died on August 13, 2014 at the age of 92. According to sources, the last living survivor of the Hindenburg is Werner Doehner who was eight years old at the time of the disaster.
Sources: Washington Post, NY Times, and Wikipedia
(Video of the Hindeburg and its explosion is copyright of British Pathe and courtesy of its incredible YouTube channel)
* Although hydrogen was known to be highly flammable it was cheaper, more readily available, and lighter than helium.
^ The disaster was a public relations nightmare for Hitler and his Third Reich who built the Hindenburg as much for propoganda as for transportation. To this day it is still the largest passenger airship ever built - almost four times longer (804’) than the Airbus A380 (239’) the largest passenger plane on earth.