Last survivor of Hindenburg crash dies at age 90

NEPTUNE, N.J. – Werner Gustav Doehner, the last survivor of the Hindenburg disaster, died on Nov. 8 at the age of 90 at his home in Laconia, New Hampshire, the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society announced Saturday.

Doehner was 8 years old when he departed Frankfurt, Germany, on May 3, 1937, aboard the colossal zeppelin airship with his parents, Hermann, 50, and Matilde, 41; an elder sister, Irene, 14, and elder brother, Walter, 10. The family lived in North America, where Hermann Doehner was a pharmaceutical executive for a German company in Mexico City.

Three days later, the Hindenburg’s 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen erupted into a firestorm as the dirigible attempted to dock at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in New Jersey on the evening of May 6, 1937.

Walter and Werner leapt from the observation windows onto the ground below, with the help of their mother and a ground crew member. Matilde followed. But when it was a reluctant Irene’s turn to jump, either in panic or shock, she attempted to flee into the interior of the burning ship to ostensibly go look for her father, who was likely in the family’s private compartment when the disaster struck.

Mother and sons survived, but Irene died that night from devastating burns while being treated at an area hospital. Hermann Doehner’s body was later recovered in the wreckage.

The German dirigible Hindenburg crashed to earth, tail first, in flaming ruins after exploding on May 6, 1937, at the U.S. Naval Station in Lakehurst. The 1920s and 1930s were the golden age of dirigibles which crossed the Atlantic Ocean in about three days — faster than a ship. The Hindenburg was the largest airship ever built at 804 feet long and flew up to 85 mph while held aloft by hydrogen, which was highly flammable. (Photo: Murray Becker)

Living in Colorado until the last year of his life, Werner Doehner rarely gave interviews to reporters.

Doehner always had a standing invitation to participate in the annual memorial service at the crash site – which is today part of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst – but the trauma of that day had not healed with the passage of time.

He attended only one – the 50th anniversary in 1987, said Carl Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society.

When commemoration ceremonies were organized ahead of the 80th anniversary of the disaster in 2017, the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society offered to pay Doehner’s expenses and accommodations for the trip, but he demurred, Jablonski recalled.

“He was very reclusive,” Jablonski said. “But if you had a connection to the Hindenburg – like being part of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society – he was willing to talk.”

Jablonski said Doehner spoke about his gratitude to everyone who helped him and his family that tragic day.

“He was forever grateful to all the sailors and nurses at Lakehurst who helped him,” Jablonski said. “I enjoyed my conversations with him. He was a good guy. May he rest now in peace.”

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Mary Shannon, a local nurse who was assigned to treat the Hindenburg survivors, exchanged letters with Doehner until her death at age 99 in 2008. Shannon’s daughter is today Ocean County Freeholder Director Virginia E. Haines.

“My mother and Werner exchanged letters for the rest of her life,” Haines has said, who attends the memorial ceremony each year to honor her mother’s service to the victims.

Doehner and his family were returning from a vacation to Germany aboard the Hindenburg when the disaster took place. The flight was the first of 17 scheduled transatlantic flights to Lakehurst during the 1937 season. The year before, the airship had made 10 such flights without incident.

On what would be its last voyage, the Hindenburg departed Frankfurt on the evening of May 3. Flight time to Lakehurst was just under three days, with an arrival time scheduled for 7 a.m. May 6. Bad weather marked the arrival day, complete with thunder, lightning and intense wind gusts. Unable to land, the Hindenburg spent much of that Thursday circumnavigating the skies above New Jersey.

Finally, at around 7 p.m., the Hindenburg was informed by radio that it had an hour window before another storm front was expected to move in over the Pine Barrens. The captain and crew were anxious to land, see its passengers disembark, refuel, restock its provisions, clean up the ship and welcome their next complement of passengers for the return trip home. The decision was made to take the opportunity to set down.

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An investigation found evidence that a bracing wire broke loose during one of the Zeppelin’s sharp turns while in its 12-hour holding pattern, which resulted in a puncture in one of its 16 hydrogen gas cells. This caused a small hydrogen leak that began to build up, forming a pocket of gas within the airship that failed to dissipate. Ultimately, when wet mooring ropes were lowered on final approach, a static electrical discharge occurred, igniting the pocket of hydrogen.

The entire airship was ablaze and on the ground in 34 seconds.

“Suddenly, the air was on fire,” Doehner recalled in a rare interview with The Associated Press at the time of the 80th anniversary.

Doehner said his mother threw him and his brother out of the ship before she jumped, too.

“We were close to a window, and my mother took my brother and threw him out,” he told the AP. “She grabbed me and fell back and then threw me out. She tried to get my sister, but she was too heavy, and my mother decided to get out by the time the Zeppelin was nearly on the ground.”

His mother broke her pelvis in the fall. The brothers were unhurt when they jumped, but both of them suffered severe burns to their hands and faces.

“I remember lying on the ground, and my brother told me to get up and to get out of there,” Doehner recalled. “Their mother joined them and asked a steward to get her daughter, whom he carried out of the burning wreckage.”

Of the 97 people aboard Hindenburg, 62 survived and 35 died. Another fatality, a ground crew member, who was positioned underneath Hindenburg as it began docking, died when part of the structure collapsed on him.

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