LIANE HANSEN, host:
At dusk, on May 6, 1937, the German airship Hindenburg was about to land at the naval air station in Lakehurst, New Jersey when it suddenly exploded in flames. In less than a minute, the 800-foot dirigible crashed to the ground. Thirty-five people on board and one person on the ground were killed. Among the dozens of witnesses to that tragedy 70 years ago today was Zeno Wicks Jr. who joins us from his home in Louisville, Kentucky. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Mr. Wicks.
Mr. ZENO WICKS JR. (Witness, 1937 Hindenburg Explosion): It's certainly all right.
HANSEN: You were 16 years when this happened. How was it that you happen to be in Lakehurst that day?
Mr. WICKS: Well, my father had been in the Navy and he'd worked at Lakehurst for many years. And after he retired he went to work for Goodyear-Zeppelin and was in charge of construction of the (unintelligible). He was - took me along when he was going out to the Lakehurst to meet a friend of his that was coming in on the Hindenburg.
Mr. WICKS: And we have been delayed by traffic and the Hindenburg had been delayed by head winds, and so we were, I'm guessing, half a mile or a mile from the field when we saw it.
HANSEN: And you saw it explode.
Mr. WICKS: Yeah.
HANSEN: What do you remember about that moment?
Mr. WICKS: Well, first of all, let me remind you that was 70 years ago and I'm...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WICKS: ...but what I remember is we saw the ship coming in then it just burst into flames. And dad drove right on up to the field and he got out, swearing loudly, and he then told me in no uncertain terms to stay in the car.
HANSEN: Did your dad help to rescue people?
Mr. WICKS: There wasn't much chance to rescue anybody. He went over, I think with that idea in mind, but - because he was meeting a good friend who is coming on.
HANSEN: Your dad's friend did not survive.
Mr. WICKS: No.
HANSEN: No. You - I mean, that was 70 years ago. You're 86 now. You're a retired chemist. After all this years, does the event still haunt you?
Mr. WICKS: You know, I still remember it, but I wouldn't say it haunts me.
HANSEN: Yeah. What did your father say afterwards? I mean, he must have talked about it quite a bit.
Mr. WICKS: Yeah. He told me what he thought had caused it, and it, you know, was one of those tragedies that the Germans were still using hydrogen because they didn't have any helium over there and we wouldn't sell it to them. I guess because of the Nazis at that time were obviously still in charge in Germany. So we wouldn't them sell helium. And if it had been filled with helium, this accident wouldn't have happened.
HANSEN: Zeno Wicks Jr., an eyewitness to the Hindenburg disaster. Thanks so much for sharing your memories with us.
Mr. WICKS: It's perfectly all right.
HANSEN: Many of you have probably heard the famous broadcast of the Hindenburg crash made by WLS reporter Herb Morrison. The recording device Morrison and his engineer used that day was running slow. When the disc was played back at regular speed, it raised the pitch of Morrison's voice. So what we have heard all these years is not the way Morrison really sounded. This is a bit of the higher pitched broadcast.
(Soundbite of archive broadcast)
Mr. HERB MORRISON (WLS Reporter): It's starting to rain again. It's - the rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it...
HANSEN: This is the way it was supposed to sound.
Mr. MORRISON: It's starting to rain again. It - The rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just enough to keep it from - it burst into flames. It burst into flames. And it's falling. It's crashing. Watch it. Watch it. Get out of the way. Get out of the way. Get this Charlie, get this Charlie. It's crash - and it's crashing. It's crashing. Terrible. Oh, my. Get out of the way, please. It's burning and bursting into flames, and it's falling on the mooring-mast. And all of the folks agree that this is terrible.
This is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. And all the people. It's crashing. Oh, 400, 500 feet into the sky. It's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. There's smoke and there's flames now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring-mast. All the humanity and all the passengers screaming around here. I told you, it - I can't even talk to people whose friends are on there. Oh, I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen.
HANSEN: Herb Morrison's speed corrected broadcast of the crash of the Hindenburg. There will be a memorial service at the Lakehurst, New Jersey site at 7:25 tonight, the exact time the Hindenburg exploded in flames 70 years ago.
You're listening to NPR News.