Werner Franz was believed to be the last surviving crew member of the German airship Hindenburg that crashed 77 years ago. He was a 14-year-old cabin boy when the hydrogen-filled Zeppelin caught fire and crashed in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on 6 May 1937.
With luck and quick thinking he jumped out of the Hindenburg as it fell burning to the ground and came out of the disaster unscathed; 36 people died. Franz returned to Germany and served as an aircraft technician during the Second World War, and was a roller-skating and ice skating coach in later life.
Franz came to be on the Hindenburg by chance, said his friend, the historian John Provan. "His older brother worked at a fancy hotel in Frankfurt where the passengers and the captain stayed overnight before the airship took off early in the morning," he said. "One of the captains said they were looking for a cabin boy and his brother heard about it."
Provan added: "Werner was most fortunate because he was in the officers' mess cleaning up. Above him was a large tank of water that burst open and drenched him, which protected him a bit from the flames and the heat."
Franz jumped out of a cloth supply hatch on to the ground below and made the wise decision to run into the wind. "He didn't make the mistake of going in the other direction or the flames would have caught him," Provan said.
The loss of the airship – attributed to static electricity that ignited leaking hydrogen – was a heavy blow to the Nazis' image of a resurgent Germany. Three other survivors are believed to be still alive, two passengers and a member of the ground crew waiting to moor the ship.
Werner Franz, airman: born 22 May 1922; married; died Frankfurt 13 August 2014.Reuse content