Dirigible accidents cost hundreds of lives in the early 20th century, but Hermann Doehner was confident enough to take his family on a return trip across the Atlantic in the hulking flagship of the Zeppelin company. The Hindenburg was no ordinary airship. At 245m long, it was more than twice the length of a football pitch and could fly at 80mph, taking a mere two and a half days to travel between Europe and America.
Admittedly, nonflammable helium would have been a safer lifting gas than hydrogen, but the monopoly supplier, the United States, had banned its export to prevent exploitation for military purposes. Securing a commercial exemption was complex and costly. Indeed, the Hindenburg, a Nazi propaganda tool since its maiden voyage in 1936, had swastikas on its tail fins.
Doehner, though, could feel reassured by the attention to detail on the luxurious journey from Frankfurt to the US; the purser confiscated a toy car that was entertaining his young sons, Walter and Werner, because it created sparks as it trundled over the carpet.
It was more than twice the length of a football pitch and could fly at 80mph. A Nazi propaganda tool, it had swastikas on its tail fins.
On the evening of May 6, 1937, after several hours’ delay in landing caused by bad weather, the Hindenburg descended to roughly 60m above ground. Doehner’s wife, Matilde, and three of his children were in a dining room; he was thought to have been heading to, or already in, their cabin, to grab a roll of film for his home-movie camera.
Without warning, flames roared from the stern, engulfing the whole frame in seconds, and a thick pall of black smoke and plumes of fire shot into the night sky as the ship tilted, sank and crumpled. A team of researchers concluded in 2013 that static electricity from a thunderstorm caused a spark that ignited leaking hydrogen.
The Times’s report described how after “a terrific explosion”, flames shot upwards. “The Hindenburg burnt like tinder. The brilliantly reflected light from the flames spread across the whole flying field, and after swaying for a moment or two the long grey hulk collapsed with a terrific impact.”
A Desperate Scramble
The scramble for survival was desperate. Passengers were hurled across the dining room as it was engulfed in flames. Matilde picked up Walter, ten, and dropped him 5m through a window so that he could be caught by a steward. She did the same with Werner, eight, before saving herself.
“Suddenly the air was on fire,” Doehner told the Associated Press in 2017, by which time he was the last survivor of the disaster. “I remember lying on the ground, and my brother told me to get up and to get out of there.”
Doehner recalled being taken by bus to an infirmary, where a nurse gave him a needle to burst his blisters, then spending three months in hospital and receiving skin grafts. Walter survived, but died in 1957; two elder brothers were not on the flight.
“Suddenly the air was on fire. I remember lying on the ground, and my brother told me to get up and to get out of there.”
Doehner’s 14-year-old sister, Irene, was carried out by a steward, but suffered severe burns and died within a few hours; his father’s badly burnt body was recovered from the wreckage the next day. Matilde died in 1981. Her desperate efforts to save her children captured the attention of the New York press, and the family were bombarded by reporters while in hospital.
A total of 97 people were on board the Hindenburg; 13 of the 36 passengers, 22 of the 61 crew members and one worker on the ground were killed.
Werner Gustav Doehner was born in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, to Hermann, the manager of a pharmaceutical company in Mexico, and Matilde (née Schiele), who was born in Argentina. He grew up in Mexico City and studied electrical engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
He is survived by his wife, Elin, whom he married in 1967 after they met in Germany, and their son, Bernard. He worked as an electrical engineer in Mexico and Ecuador before his job took them to the US in 1984. A reserved and religious man who enjoyed skiing and Native American history, he retired to Parachute, Colorado. Doehner rarely talked about the Hindenburg, although speaking before the 80th anniversary of the disaster, he recalled how he took in the scenery and that the voyage seemed calm until the very last.
Werner Doehner, engineer, was born on March 14, 1929. He died of pneumonia on November 8, 2019, aged 90