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Human Interest

Last Survivor of Hindenburg Disaster Speaks on Eve of 80th Anniversary of the Crash: ‘The Air Was on Fire’

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AP

Though it will be 80 years Saturday since the crash that took the lives of his father and sister, the memories of that day have not faded for Werner Doehner.

Doehner, now 88, was just eight years old when he and his parents, brother and sister boarded the ill-fated Hindenburg on their way home from a vacation in Germany, he told the Associated Press in a rare telephone interview from this home in Parachute, Colorado this week.

But, as the Hindenburg approached the Lakehurst Naval Air Station on May 6, 1937, flames began to flicker on top of the ship, quickly fueled into an inferno by the hydrogen that kept the 804-foot-long German passenger airship aloft. The front of the vessel pitched up and the back section pitched down.

“Suddenly the air was on fire,” Doehner told the AP.

The Doehners had gathered with other passengers in the portside dining room to watch the landing maneuver through the big observation windows, according to the blog Faces of the Hindenburg. As the ship approached the mooring mast and dropped its landing ropes, Werner’s father  went downstairs to their cabin on B-deck to get another roll of film for his movie camera. They never saw him again. Werner, his mother and his brother and sister were sitting at a table near a window.

“[M]y mother took my brother and threw him out,”  Doehner,  the only person left of the 62 passengers and crew who survived the fire that killed his father, sister and 34 others 80 years ago Saturday, told the AP.  “She grabbed me and fell back and then threw me out. She tried to get my sister, but she was too heavy, and my mother decided to get out by the time the zeppelin was nearly on the ground.”

His mother had broken her hip.

“I remember lying on the ground, and my brother told me to get up and to get out of there,” he said.

Their mother joined them and asked a steward to get her daughter, whom he carried out of the burning wreckage.

A bus took the survivors to an infirmary, where, Doehner said, a nurse gave him a needle to burst his blisters.

Werner Doehner
Pat Candido/NY Daily News via Getty

From there, the family was taken to Point Pleasant Hospital. Doehner had burns to his face, both hands and down his right leg from the knee, according to the AP.. His mother had burns to her face, both legs and both hands. His brother had several burns on his face and right hand. His sister died early in the morning.

Werner stayed in the hospital for three months before going to a hospital in New York City in August for skin grafts and was discharged in January. Doehner’s family had planned to travel on the airship to Lakehurst, New Jersey then fly to Newark and board a train in nearby New York City to take them home to Mexico City, where Doehner’s father was a pharmaceutical representative. Instead, when what was left of the family returned to Mexico City, they held funerals for Doehner’s father and sister.

Interest in the disaster is as strong as ever. A ceremony commemorating the disaster will take place at the crash site Saturday night, Carl Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, told the AP.

“The internet and social media has exposed and attracted the interest of a younger generation,” he said.

Doehner understands why.

The Hindenburg, Doehner said, is “something you don’t forget.”