LAKEHURST, N.J. -- At 87, Robert Buchanan says he sometimes has trouble remembering what he did 10 minutes ago. But he can recall in vivid detail the day 70 years ago when he watched the Hindenburg erupt into a fireball.
A burst of flames roared across the surface of the mighty German airship only a hundred or so feet above him, and Buchanan remembers his hair getting singed as he ran for his life.
"It was a piff-puff, just like someone would leave the gas on and not get the flame to it," said Buchanan, one of the last living members of the ground crew that was helping the Hindenburg land.
Seventy years ago today, the Hindenburg ignited after it had dropped lines while easing toward its mooring mast at the Navy base in Lakehurst. The crash killed 35 people on board and one person in the ground crew.
"I ran quite a distance because the heat, the flame, kept shooting out ahead of me," said Buchanan, a resident of nearby Tuckerton. "And I really didn't think I was going to make it, frankly."
The airship -- more than three times longer than a modern
With an 804-foot-long, fabric-covered, metal frame filled with more than 7 million cubic feet of lighter-than-air hydrogen, the Hindenburg was cutting-edge technology, "the Concorde of its day back in 1936 and '37," said Carl Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. Jablonski said the Hindenburg would later be referred to as the "Titanic of the sky."
The historical society is holding a private 70th anniversary memorial service today at the crash site in Lakehurst, about 40 miles east of Philadelphia.
A swastika-emblazoned billboard for Nazi Germany, the Hindenburg offered a trip across the Atlantic that took half the time of the standard four- to five-day ocean liner trip, said Rick Zitarosa, a vice president for the historical society. Before the crash, it had carried more than 1,000 passengers on 10 successful round trips between Germany and Lakehurst in 1936, on top of additional trips to Brazil the same year.
Hindenburg passengers ate gourmet meals off fine china, drank French and German wines, and even smoked in a pressurized room.
The Zeppelin company, the German company that ran the airship service, had to use flammable hydrogen to fill the Hindenburg because of a US embargo on nonflammable helium.
On May 6, 1937, more than a 1,000 sightseers had gathered in Lakehurst to see the Hindenburg, carrying 61 crew members and 36 passengers, after its first trans-Atlantic voyage of the year. The Hindenburg was in a rush to land and take off again, because a larger load of passengers was waiting. But for hours, rainy weather had delayed the landing.
Buchanan, who was 17 at the time, was among more than 200 ground crew members getting drenched as they waited for the Hindenburg to land.
"The blessing is that I wore a sweater and I was soaking wet, absolutely ringing wet. And that's what I think saved us," Buchanan said.
As the Hindenburg came in and started dropping lines, Associated Press photographer Murray Becker raised his camera to get a shot of the giant, silver airship as it started to land.
"He was just going to make a nice picture of a dirigible coming in. And then it blew, right when he had his finger on the shutter," recalled Marty Lederhandler, 89, an AP photographer of 66 years who was working in the wire service's New York darkroom when the Hindenburg crashed.
As Becker shot photos, a Chicago radio station announcer was doing a taped broadcast of the landing.
"Oh, the humanity and all the passengers!" said WLS announcer Herbert Morrison, whose recorded words would later air on NBC stations and be a part of history.
Amazingly, about two-thirds of those on board were able to get out of the burning airship.
"You either died a horrible death, or you got out with minor injuries. There weren't many cases that were in between," Zitarosa said.
The cause of the crash is still debated. The most accepted theory is that static electricity from the day's storms led to the ignition of the hydrogen.
On the base in Lakehurst, a plaque and marker in the middle of an old airship landing area, its World War II-era pavement cracking, shows where the Hindenburg met its end.
In the distance, the massive Hanger No. 1, built by the Navy in 1921 to house airships, is used for training and storage. But since 2004, it has also housed an information center, which the Navy Lake hurst Historical Society runs in partnership with the military.
Last year, about 15,000 people visited the information center, and had a chance to see old newspaper clippings, a metal girder from the Hindenburg, and silverware blackened from the fire, said Jablonski.
The memory of the crash also stays alive because it was so tragic. As with the Titanic, it's a story of human beings pushing technological limits and failing, said Rick Archbold, a Canadian author who has written about major disasters.