Saturday, October 8, 2011
Forget the Titanic, the Lusitania, and the comparatively unphotogenic accident at Chernobyl. Thanks to the power of images, the explosion of the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937, claims the dubious honor of being the quintessential disaster of the 20th century.
In the grand scheme of things, however, the Hindenburg wasn’t all that disastrous. Of the 97 people aboard, a surprising 62 survived. (in fact, it wasn’t even the worst Zeppelin crash of the 20th century. Just four years earlier, the U.S.S. Akron had crashed into the Atlantic killing more than twice as many people.) But when calculating the epic status of a catastrophe, terrifying photographs and quotable quotes ("Oh, the humanity!") far outweigh body counts.
Assembled as part of a massive PR campaign by the Hindenburg’s parent company in Germany, no fewer than 22 photographers, reporters, and newsreel cameramen were on the scene in Lakehurst, N.J. when the airship went down. Worldwide publicity of the well-documented disaster shattered the public’s faith in Zeppelins, which were, at the time, considered the safest mode of air travel available.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Zeppelins had operated regular flights, totting civilians back and forth between Germany and the Americas. But all of that stopped in 1937. The incident effectively killed the use of dirigibles as a commercially viable mode of passenger transport, ending the golden age of the airship not with a whimper, but with a horrific bang that was photographed and then syndicated around the globe.