(Warning: Contains Death due to Catastrophic Event)
May 6, 1937
It was the perfect, sunny day for a birthday. That’s what Donna Patricelli was thinking as she looked both ways before crossing the bustling street coming from school. Her best friend Mary Catherine invited her to play Marbles on her block, but Donna had said no, her Ma was making her favorite chocolate cake for her eighth birthday. Ma called it Crescionda di Spoleto. So off Donna went, skipping home in her favorite bright blue dress with matching hair ribbon, dark brown curls bobbing behind her and licking her lips as she imagined the sweet, rich taste of cake. Her Pa presented her this morning with new shiny black shoes for church, but Ma allowed her to wear them to school today. She looked down at the perfectly polished shoes as they twinkled brightly in the sun back at her. Donna felt like the luckiest girl in the world.
She skipped to her quaint brick-fashioned tenement in Battery Park, Manhattan, hopped up to the second story and pushed open the door, smiling as the warm buttery scent of fresh baking enveloped her. Her smile stretched even wider as she saw her Pa standing by the radio, listening intently in his brown work suit and matching fedora.
“There’s my Donna girl!” he bellowed with a broad smile, catching Donna as she leapt and melted into his arms. “I have another surprise for you!”
“Oh, Pa! Another surprise?!”
Donna glanced back in the kitchen where she saw Ma, hands on her slender hips, casting a scornful gaze at him.
“Now don’t fret, Sofia. This one doesn’t cost a single cent,” he assured her, raising his eyebrows mischievously. Ma let a small smile slip from the corners of her mouth, unable to keep angry with him.
“Knowing you, Lorenzo Patricelli, it may not cost a cent, but a few gray hairs on the top of my head.”
Placing Donna on the floor, Pa pecked Ma gently on the lips and tipped his hat. “We’ll be back before dinner, my love. Donna! Quickly!”
Donna followed Pa excitedly back down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk where he took off his hat before the wind could claim it and peered up at the sky. She looked up as well, looking at the fat white clouds rolling over the wide stretch of blue.
“What is it, Pa?”
“A surprise, darling! You’ll know when you see it!”
Donna giggled as she followed her Pa around the streets, staring up at the sky as if waiting for the cotton candy clouds to fall down. What she saw instead made her heart gallop in her chest. A large shadow loomed over the sidewalk, blocking out the sun. She squealed in a mix of terror and delight as an ominous silver balloon glided over the buildings.
“Oh, Pa! I’m scared!”
“Don’t be, darling! That’s the surprise for you, it won’t hurt ya! Don’t you know what that is?”
“No,” she stammered, her Pa scooping her up.
“That’s the Hindenburg Blimp. It flew directly over our home to say Happy Birthday to you!”
Donna was surprised. As large as it was, floating where the breeze steered it, it didn’t make a single noise. Well, why would a balloon make noise like an airplane after all? Pa ran with her jostling in his arms towards the Hudson River to watch the silent visitor glide across Liberty State Park.
“Where’s it goin?” Donna said softly, brown eyes wide as saucers.
“I s’pose back on track to Lakehurst Naval Air Station,” Pa answered, kissing Donna on the cheek. “They’ve been waitin’ on the weather to clear over there before landing, so they stopped by to say hello to you. At least, that’s what the radio was squawkin’.”
Donna gulped down her fears so as not to disappoint him. “What a treat, Pa!” she said.
They went back inside after the large silver blimp became nothing but a small speck, but Donna couldn’t shake the chill that dripped down her spine. Earlier this morning she felt like a grown eight-year-old lady on her way to womanhood. After witnessing the sheer size of the zeppelin that had loomed over her, it reminded her just how tiny and fragile her eight-year-old little girl self really was.
Werner pushed against his brother and sister to get a look out the slanted window. He was just tall enough if he stood on his toes to see out, but it would be better if his mother would let him drag his dining room chair across the carpet so he could stand as tall as his sister, who peered out with ease. Dinner was finished and the guests were making their way out, so it’s not like anybody needed the chair anyways.
Three days prior, he waved goodbye to his newly made friends in Germany on the ground from another window on the air ship. It was noisier than he thought it would be. He always pictured riding in a blimp would be like sitting in a balloon and letting the wind guide you, but the large engines and propellers hummed loudly day and night, forcing their way against the unexpectedly sharp gusts towards New Jersey. Despite the pounding thrum of the engines, he was transfixed as they soared over the Atlantic Ocean. The deep blue expanse lay below him undisturbed besides the great icebergs that jutted out. He squinted, looking for tiny penguins like he had seen in his books about Antarctica.
“We aren’t in Antarctica. What would a penguin do out on a lonely little iceberg?” his sister teased.
“Catch fish swimming by, I suppose,” he argued back. He knew his sister was right, but he still looked for the penguins anyways.
He was anxious to get off the blimp and back on land, even if for only a few moments. He knew the ship was delayed because of the weather and groaned as the blimp shifted course before arriving in New Jersey. There was supposed to be a thunderstorm tonight, but the high winds around Lakehurst had them detouring around until it calmed. They were somewhere, flying high over New Jersey. Werner looked down at the tall buildings, smiling as he saw small specks of people walking along the streets.
As they floated over the engines were cut off, delivering a sweet, silent reprieve to his ears. He was finally riding in the quiet balloon he had originally thought he’d be in. They flew gracefully over the Hudson River.
“Just heard word from the crewmen,” father said in his low gruff voice to mother, “the weather is favorable now. We’re heading for Lakehurst.”
“We were supposed to land at Lakehurst hours ago!” mother had sighed, “I’ll believe it when we’re on the ground.”
“Come, children,” father had ushered, placing a firm hand on Werner’s shoulder, “let’s make our way to the port side of the ship.” Werner obediently followed behind his brother and sister, naughtily tugging on the ribbon in her hair. She whipped her head around and shot him a glare that loosened at his giggles.
“Honestly Werner, if I didn’t know you were eight, I’d assume you were four with all your wicked pranks,” she giggled, tightening the ribbon. She ruffled his black wavy hair before skipping up beside father.
After a hearty dinner of Risotto topped off with Donna’s favorite chocolate cake, she sat in the family room with Ma and Pa, listening to Herbert Morrison on the radio. His voice crackled excitedly between jazz songs, announcing the whereabouts of the blimp. It was a late arrival, as Donna had learned. Who could rush a balloon to float across the sky? Herbert had blared through the speaker that the ship could hold seventy passengers, but it was only half full. Was that supposed to make it float faster?
“Oh, Ma! You should have come out to see. It was the grandest blimp I’ve ever seen!”
“It’s the only blimp you’ve ever seen,” Ma corrected, not taking her eyes off the pants she was busy hemming on her lap. “Besides, I’ve seen the Hindenburg.”
“Mmhm,” she hummed triumphantly, “The Hindenburg was here a few times last year. Although, they’ve never flown over Manhattan that I’m aware of. I was visiting your baby cousin Vicky in the city when I saw it.”
“Were you scared when you saw it?” Donna whispered, hoping she wasn’t the only one.
Ma gave a dainty laugh, “Why would I be scared, silly?”
“Because of how large it was!”
“Well, no larger than the clouds now, is it? They float across the sky all the same.”
Feeling silly, Donna slid back into the hard cushion of her chair.
Herbert Morrison’s voice chimed through the radio: Well, here it comes, ladies and gentlemen; we're out now, outside of the hangar. And what a great sight it is, a thrilling one, just a marvelous sight. It's coming down out of the sky, pointed directly towards us and toward the mooring mast.
Pa turned the dial on the radio, the crackling growing louder as he strained to listen. “It’s finally landing at Lakehurst!” Pa smiled.
How did they land a big balloon? That’s all Donna could think about. Did somebody poke it with a giant pin? Or let all the air out of a stitching? “How’s it going to land, Pa?”
Ma answered instead, “Well, I believe sometimes they throw ropes down, and men on the ground tie it down and pull it towards them.”
Donna thought about how brave those men were, standing underneath that enormous silver balloon and wrenching it down towards them. Goodness, she hoped they wouldn’t get taken up in a gust of wind and blown into the sky, clinging to the ropes! Not only that, but it’s so dark out now! She walked over to Pa by the radio and glanced at his watch. 7:23pm. Would they be able to see alright and tighten down the ropes in the dark? Her heart beat wildly with the thought.
It's practically standing still now; they've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship, and it's been taken a hold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again -- the rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it….
“By golly,” Pa mumbled, leaning back on the couch and closing his eyes, “what a sight it must be. How lucky we got to catch a glimpse of it, isn’t that right Donna girl?”
“Yes, Pa,” she agreed.
Suddenly, Herbert’s crackling voice announced frantically, It burst into flames! Get out of the way! Get out of the way!
Pa’s eyes popped open and he shot up in his seat, staring at the radio as if it itself had burst into flames. Ma’s head snapped up just as fast, brows furrowed in confusion at what she just heard.
Get this Charley! Get this Charley! It’s burning and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh my, get out of the way please. It’s burning, bursting into flames….
The horror that Donna gulped down earlier in the street with Pa now seized her throat. Ma dropped her needle on her lap, covering her mouth in horror with her hand. Pa jumped up, grabbing each side of the radio as if to get it to speak faster.
I -- I'm gonna step inside where I cannot see it. Charley, that’s terrible. I – I can’t....Listen folks, I -- I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.
Donna wished Pa would turn off the radio, but she couldn’t open her mouth to speak. All she saw flashing across her mind were flames spewing from the giant balloon as it tumbled dangerously to the ground, crushing the brave men below as they diligently tied their knots in the ropes.
“And there the ropes go, do you see that, Werner?”
Mother had propped Werner up on the ledge of the slanted window, so he could see clearly what his brother and sister were already tall enough to see. He watched the ropes tumble to the ground, men scrambling to grab hold of them to tie the ship in place.
“This is called a ‘flying moor,’” father whispered into Werner’s ear. “The crewmen toss down the ropes and the men on the ground will pull the ship down and secure it.”
“Nuts!” Werner gasped.
Father led his sister to the opposite side of the observing deck to see what was happening while mother, Werner, and his older brother stood by the window peering down.
It was dark out, but as the balloon hovered over the ground a mass of people could be seen. The workers were illuminated by lights. He smiled, waving down at them. All of a sudden, Werner felt a sharp shutter from the ship as he fell out of his stumbling mothers’ arms. A few yelps sounded off around the deck
“Good gracious,” mother said, picking a stunned Werner off the floor, “What was—”
Before she could finish her sentence, a hot burst of air hit them in the back, a heavy choking smell of smoke and diesel filling their lungs. A sensation of falling rippled through Werner’s gut, but he couldn’t open his eyes to see around him. Screams filled the putrid deck before he could figure out what was happening.
He was back on the ground again, and forced his eyes open just in time to see his mother picking up his older brother while screaming, tossing him out of an open window. Werner gazed up at his mother in horror, but before he could run away his crazed mother grabbed him around the waist and launched them both from the window.
Werner didn’t have time to feel relief that the ground wasn’t as far as he thought it would be. Mother wrenched both boys by the hand, Werner’s feet almost unable to keep up with their running pace. The uncomfortable sensation of heat clamped his back, and he smelled burnt hair as the sounds of screaming and metal crashing echoed around him. He looked up and his eyes grew wide, the nose of the Hindenburg blimp straight up in the air, the entirety of it being engulfed in a flash of flame. He looked wildly around the crowd despite his eyes stinging with smoke. Panic crept in as he realized his father and sister were not with them.
He tried to ask mother where they were, but all he could manage was a fit of coughing and a sideways glance at his horror-stricken brother whose large brown eyes reflected the massive ball of fire that consumed the Hindenburg, his father, and his sister.
March 3, 2013
The mystery of the Hindenburg disaster—after seventy-six years— has finally been solved. Many hypotheses have surrounded the Hindenburg, enshrining it in dark secrecy. From sabotage, lightning, engine failure, puncture, and incendiary paint hypotheses, the real cause was due to static electricity. After the ship flew into a thunderstorm, a build-up of hydrogen led to the explosion.
Although this story is historical fiction, the character Werner was inspired by the true story of Werner Gustav Doehner, who lost his father and sister that horrendous night on May 6, 1937. Werner Doehner passed away from complications of pneumonia on November 8, 2019 at the age of ninety.
The fire consumed the zeppelin quickly, many eyewitnesses stating the total time of destruction reported between thirty-two and thirty-seven seconds, although NASA expert Addison Bain determined the actual time of destruction was around sixteen seconds.
Despite the short amount of time the blimp was destroyed, there were only thirteen deaths of the thirty-six passengers on board, and only twenty-two of the sixty-one crewmen died. Many who did survive were severely burned.
Life on the American Newsfront: The Hindenburg makes her Last Landing at Lakehurst . (1937, May 17). Life Magazine, 26–31.
Magazine, S. (2012, May 1). Document deep dive: A firsthand account of the Hindenburg disaster. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/document-deep-dive-a-firsthand-account-of-the-hindenburg-disaster-79086828/
Hindenburg mystery solved 76 years after catastrophe. Synapse Wall of Cool - Hindenburg Mystery Solved 76 Years After Catastrophe | Synapse Product Engineer. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.synapse.com/wall-of-cool/markgi/hindenburg-mystery-solved-76-years-after-catastrophe
Larsen, E. (2019, November 17). Last survivor of Hindenburg crash dies at age 90. USA Today. Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/11/16/last-hindenburg-survivor-werner-gustav-doehner-dies-age-90/4219975002/
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Nice work of historical fiction. It conveys very well what happened on that terrible day.
Hi Ana, thank you for taking the time to read and leave your thoughts! It’s terrible and fascinating how quickly the events unfolded that day. I appreciate your comment!