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.
ZENO WICKS JR: 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?
WICKS JR: 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.
WICKS JR: 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.
WICKS JR: Yeah.
HANSEN: What do you remember about that moment?
WICKS JR: Well, first of all, let me remind you that was 70 years ago and I'm...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WICKS JR: ...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?
WICKS JR: 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.
WICKS JR: 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?
WICKS JR: 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.
WICKS JR: 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.
WICKS JR: 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)
HERB MORRISON: 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.
MORRISON: 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: You're listening to NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.