Eighty-four years after the airship Hindenburg crashed in Lakehurst, New Jersey, a new PBS documentary has new evidence about why the disaster may have happened.
“Hindenburg: The New Evidence,” a film produced by PBS’ NOVA television program, features U.S. Air Force veteran Jason O. Harris as part of a team completing the first investigation into the crash since its immediate aftermath in 1937. Harris, a lieutenant colonel, teamed up with historian Dan Grossman to discover why the fire, which ultimately killed 36 people, happened in the first place.
Up until now, many considered the cause of the Hindenburg crash to be lost to history. Using newly discovered footage from an amateur videographer at the scene, filmmakers present a never-before-seen view of the crash, including moments before the airship caught fire.
Harris, who is also a commercial airline pilot trained in accident investigation, jumped on the opportunity to research the cause of the disaster, especially given the new evidence and methods of investigating modern accidents.
“Oftentimes we see history, we see stories and we don’t get to see it up close and personal,” Harris told Military Times.
Having this opportunity to interact with the Hindenburg’s history made him consider the accident in light of his military and professional training. Specifically, he looked the people in charge of the airship’s crew and the dynamics of the people on the ship.
Aircraft crew members in the 1930s did not have as in-depth training in decision making as they do today. Given the ongoing rain on the day the Hindenburg was scheduled to land, the ship’s arrival was already delayed. Once the ship neared New Jersey, rain picked up again just as landing cables dropped.
The German crew members on the Hindenburg were likely stressed given that the ship was arriving significantly late to New Jersey, but did not want to add to the delays by not landing immediately. Harris also noted that having high-level officials and leaders overseeing the crew inside of the craft may have added additional stress.
“Every accident is nothing more than a chain of events, a chain of decisions that were made over a period of time that either led to something catastrophic or led to someone breaking that chain of events and making a different decision,” said Harris.
Viewing the accident through the lens of stressful decision making adds new layers to what may have happened in the moments leading up to the crash, he added.
The Hindenburg’s crash was remarkable and unexpected. The press present at the event planned on waiting to film once the ship landed, hoping to get views of passengers disembarking. For this reason, most of the known footage that existed before this new discovery captured what happened after the airship caught fire, Rushmore DeNooyer, writer and producer for the film, said.
The videographer, Harold Schenck, did not capture what specifically caused the German airship’s landing to become disastrous.
“Mr. Schenck was filming all the stuff that the press pool did not film, but even he missed the exact moment that the spark sparked” said DeNooyer. “[The Hindenburg] goes from pristine airship...to just charred wreckage on the ground in just 60 seconds.”
Schenck and his family tried to give the film to accident investigators right after the crash, but they chose not to look at it. The rediscovery and verified authenticity of the footage sparked NOVA to launch new scientific experiments to find out the origin of the blaze.
“Thanks to this stunning new footage, we were able to revive a cold case investigation surrounding one of the most iconic disasters of the 20th century,” said the documentary’s executive producer, Gary Tarpinian, in a press release.
The film follows Harris and Grossman from the site of the crash in New Jersey, to Germany’s Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen, to a Caltech laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The documentary airs on Wednesday, May 19th at 9:00 pm EST on PBS. Starting Wednesday morning, the film will be available to stream on online PBS’ website and on the PBS app.