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Friday, October 12, 2012

Eyewitness to the Hindenburg horror

75 years later, a Moneta resident recalls what he saw when the airship went down.

The hangar at the Lakehurst, N.J., Naval Air Station is monumental. Encompassing an area of 211,434 feet and soaring to a height of more than 200, it was a space so cavernous that the building had its own atmosphere, said Moneta resident Bruce Reichelderfer. "It would rain in there."

It was also the site of one of the United States' most iconic disasters, to which Reichelderfer was a witness. Before jetliners traversed the skies in trans-Atlantic flights, there were airships, and Reichelderfer's father, Francis Reichelderfer, was one of their navigators.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Francis served as a World War I bombardier, and later flew for the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics onboard the German-made airship the USS Los Angeles. At one time, he was the only Naval pilot to be specialized in both heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air craft, Bruce Reichelderfer said.

Bruce Reichelderfer and his mother, Beatrice, traveled extensively because of Francis' duties. It was during a helium balloon race in 1931, a multinational sport in which Francis was a participant, that the Reichelderfer family visited Friedrichshafen, Germany, the headquarters of that country's Zeppelin operations, to view its newest creation, the Hindenburg.

Named for the German president who appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor in 1933, the Hindenburg was a massive airship. Within its 803-foot-long aluminum frame, a length just slightly shorter than the Titanic, were 16 canvas bags filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas.

"You're just awestruck by all this metal," said Reichelderfer.

The interior of the ship was as impressive as its girth.

The Hindenburg was sleek, modern. There was a dance floor and a library, "anything an ocean liner has," Reichelderfer said. Cabins were "very well outfitted, bunks for two.

"It had a smoking area which I'll never forget. You did not smoke in the open on the ship. You had a compartment which was aluminum lined ... and to make sure that you did not cause a spark, you wore a wristband that had a tether to it that you plugged into a jack in the aluminum wall."

On May 6, 1937, the ship had successfully completed a three-day trans-Atlantic flight from Frankfurt, Germany, and was set to arrive in Lakehurst. Francis had made an earlier round-trip flight on the ship from Germany to Brazil, and was scheduled to accompany its crew once again on its next flight to Europe.

It was raining, the aftermath of a thunderstorm, and both parents were inside the boarding house - where the family was temporarily housed - packing for Francis' impending departure. Excited, 9-year-old Bruce Reichelderfer went outside to witness the ship's arrival from the vantage point of the front porch, a straight view, he said, to the ship a mile away.

"The skipper, like any captain, prides himself on his ship-handling capabilities," said Reichelderfer. "Well, he missed the first approach because of the storm, and I think it worked on his ego a little."

The Hindenburg gave a "hard rudder" and came in for a second approach. It was in that instance that Reichelderfer said he observed a large "static ball" appear on the upper fin of the tail: St. Elmo's Fire, an electric field sometimes observed attached to ships during thunderstorms.

When the Hindenburg's landing lines were dropped, allowing ground crew to secure the ship to a mooring mast, the phenomenon disappeared. For seconds, "maybe milliseconds" a glow emitted from within the ship, as the ship's hydrogen cells ignited.

"It split the ship in half," said Reichelderfer of the ensuing inferno. "There's classic pictures of the flames leaping up. My gosh, they were a hundred feet high."

Windows rattled, and Reichelderfer began running down the street, crying, and calling out, "The ship! The ship!"

"It's unbelievable to see something that huge jump out of the sky."

He doesn't recall much conversation between his parents when he returned to the boarding house. Instead, the family loaded into the car and drove to the Naval base so Francis could offer his assistance.

Out of the 97 crew members and passengers aboard, 35 perished that day.

One survivor was a young cabin boy. Reichelderfer recalled that the back of the boy's neck had been on fire, but he had been saved by jumping from the ship onto a canvas ballast bag, which cushioned his fall. The boy, possibly Werner Franz, the sole cabin boy on that flight, was brought to an officer's home, where he and Reichelderfer played together one afternoon after the disaster.

The wreckage of the Hindenburg also signaled the end of the airship era. One year after the disaster, Francis retired from the Navy. He would later serve as chief of the United States Weather Bureau until his retirement in 1966.

"[He] had a great mind up until he died in 1984," said his son.

Reichelderfer graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1952. Both he and his wife, Betty, retired from Chesapeake Potomac of Washington, a predecessor of Verizon, before settling in Moneta in 1982.

"People are going to say, how in the heck can a 9-year-old remember that?" said Reichelderfer. "Well, there's certain things you remember."