May 22, 1922 - Aug. 13, 2014
NEW YORK – Just before 7:30 p.m. on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg, an immense German zeppelin that had spent three days crossing the Atlantic, erupted in flames as it approached its mooring mast at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in central New Jersey. Seen around the world in newsreel coverage and photographs, the disaster, which was attributed to an electric spark igniting the hydrogen gas that kept the airship aloft, killed 35 of the 97 people on board and another man on the ground.
Twenty-three of its 36 passengers survived. So did 39 of its 61 crew members, including Werner Franz, a 14-year-old cabin boy.
Franz died at 92 on Aug. 13 in Frankfurt, Germany. The death was confirmed by Dan Grossman, a historian whose specialty is airships. Franz was believed to be the last surviving crew member. At least one other survivor of the crash, Werner Doehner, who was 8 years old and traveling with his family at the time, is thought to be still living.
The Hindenburg, 800 feet long (more than three times the length of a Boeing 747) and 135 feet in diameter, had its maiden voyage on March 4, 1936, and made 62 safe flights before its destruction. Franz had made four round-trip crossings on it, to both North and South America. As he recalled his experience of the crash in a book published in Germany a year later, he had been clearing dishes in the officer’s mess when the Hindenburg began to burn.
“Franz heard a thud, and he felt the ship shake and point sharply upward as the burning tail crashed to the ground,” Grossman wrote on his website, airships.net, summarizing the German account. “Hydrogen flames roared above and behind him as the ship tilted more steeply, and then a ballast tank ruptured, dousing Franz with water.”
The inadvertent soaking was Franz’s good fortune, offering a buffer against the mounting heat and flame. He kicked open a hatch used to bring supplies onto the ship, and when the ground loomed close enough, he leapt to safety, running from the wreckage before it could entrap him. He suffered no injuries.
Franz was born in Frankfurt on May 22, 1922. He returned to Germany after the disaster, serving as a radio operator and instructor in the Luftwaffe during World War II, according to Grossman’s website. Afterward he worked for the German postal service and was also a skating coach. He is survived by his wife, Annerose, and several children and grandchildren.
Grossman wrote that the day after the crash, Franz returned to the site to look for his pocket watch, given to him by his grandfather, and that he found it. A brief article in the New York Times five days after the crash said Franz was also at the site the previous day, on May 10, and that he was discovered by an official investigative party led by a naval officer, Cmdr. Charles E. Rosendahl.
“The party found the youngster arguing with a guard over possession of a scrap of charred metal, of no value,” the Times wrote. “Commander Rosendahl settled the dispute by awarding the metal to the boy.”
- New York Times