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Newly uncovered footage emerges of Hindenburg airship, emblazoned with Nazi swastikas, flying over New York just hours before giant fireball killed 35 people

The huge German airship exploded above a New Jersey airfield on May 6 1937 – with newsreel footage of its burning wreckage forming one of the 20th Century’s most iconic images

John Hall
Wednesday 08 May 2013 11:22 BST

Chilling footage has emerged of the Hindenburg airship, emblazoned with swastikas and other Nazi insignia, flying over New York just hours before it was destroyed in a fireball, killing 35 people.

The huge German airship exploded above a New Jersey airfield on May 6 1937 – with newsreel footage of its burning wreckage forming one of the 20th Century’s most iconic images.

At about three times longer and twice as tall as a modern-day Boeing 747, the Hindenburg was a wonder of its age, with the pre-World War II Nazis declaring it “the pride of Germany”.

The ship was widely photographed arriving in Europe, South America and North America during more than 30 transatlantic crossings, but many of the best known images of the doomed craft are from its first few months of service in 1936.

Despite this, very little footage was captured during the Hindenburg’s final hours, as it raced over Manhattan en route to landing in the Lakehurst airfield in New Jersey in an attempt to make up time lost to delays caused by thunderstorms over Boston.

The sight of the colossal airship making its unscheduled detour over what was then New York City’s most populous borough drew hundreds onto the streets; all unaware that, just hours later, the flight would end in disaster.

Now, however, footage has entered the public domain showing the airship making its now legendary detour.

The sight of the swastika-decorated airship flying over the world’s most famous skyline, including the recently built Empire State Building, is chilling – and not just because disaster was hours away.

Within two years of the Hindenburg explosion, Nazi Germany was at war with Britain, with the USA itself drawn into the conflict by 1941. World War II went on to become the deadliest conflict in human history.

But despite later events, the Hindenburg was actually seen as an example of Germany’s gradual reintegration into the western world following World War I, which had left the country impoverished and politically isolated.

In fact, many of those on board the Hindenburg at the time of the disaster were set to journey to London for the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth – the parents of Elizabeth II.

After the ship passed over Manhattan, it approached the Lakefield airfield in New Jersey at around 7pm and attempted to land.

Adverse weather conditions and an unprepared ground crew meant the attempted landing was disorganized however, and the ship was forced to make several sharp turns, emergency breaking manoeuvres and ballast dumps in order to give it the best chance of landing safely.

By 7.25pm the first signs of disaster were apparent, with witnesses on the ground reporting seeing blue charges, most likely static electricity, in the back of the ship, and the ship’s upper fin fluttering as if gas were leaking.

Soon, mushroom-shaped yellow and red flames were spotted around the fin and, within seconds, the entire balloon was ablaze.

Only partially tied to a mooring mast as a result of the haphazard nature of its landing, the ship lurched forward, causing water and fuel tanks to explode and forcing the flames towards the passenger carriage. As the ship lost buoyancy and crashed to the ground, further gas cells exploded.

In total 35 people lost their lives in the disaster; 13 passengers and 22 crewmen - including one member of the ground crew. Despite lasting only an estimated 37 seconds, the blaze was captured on newsreel footage and led to unprecedented levels of international news coverage.

Countless hypotheses, including a number of sabotage theories voiced by experts, have been voiced to explain why the disaster occurred but the official cause of the explosion remains unexplained.

The Hindenburg explosion shattered public confidence in airships as a mode of international travel, and within just a few years this “transport of the future” and the so-called airship era was over.

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