Hindenburg Mystery Finally Put to Rest

76 years later, experts say static electricity was to blame

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Mar 4, 2013 8:21 AM CST | Updated Mar 9, 2013 7:15 AM CST

(Newser) – A 21st-century team of researchers has solved an enduring 20th-century mystery: What sparked the fire that caused the Hindenburg to explode and plummet to the ground? Static electricity, asserts the British-US team, which tested a number of the theories that have been floated for the last 76 years on 79-foot scale models of the hydrogen-filled airship, reports the Independent. The paper explains that investigators of the May 6, 1937, disaster determined that a spark ignited leaking gas, but were unable to definitively determine the source of the spark or the gas leak.

Others believed sabotage, by way of a bomb or a shooter stationed on the ground, was to blame, but the team outlines a more scientific series of events: It believes an electrical storm caused the Hindenburg to be charged with static electricity; when the crew members on the ground in New Jersey grabbed the landing ropes, they "earthed" the Hindenburg (ie, connected it electrically to the ground). That caused the spark that perilously ignited the hydrogen that had leaked into the ventilation shafts by way of a broken wire or sticking gas valve. An airship historian says he thinks the team's finding is "exactly what happened. I think you had an ignition source pull down into the ship, and that whole back portion of the ship went up almost at once." The news follows Bloomberg's profile of a resurgent airship industry; it reports that a drop in the cost of carbon fiber and advances in buoyancy technology have manufacturers asserting that their coming ships will be able to steal business from freight operators by 2016.

This May 6, 1937 file photo, taken at almost the split second that the Hindenburg exploded, shows the 804-foot German zeppelin just before the second and third explosions send the ship crashing.
This May 6, 1937 file photo, taken at almost the split second that the Hindenburg exploded, shows the 804-foot German zeppelin just before the second and third explosions send the ship crashing.   (AP Photo)
In this Aug. 8, 1936 file photo, the zeppelin Hindenburg floats past the Empire State Building in New York.
In this Aug. 8, 1936 file photo, the zeppelin Hindenburg floats past the Empire State Building in New York.   (AP Photo)
The blaze killed 35 people on board and one person in the ground crew; 62 passengers and crew members survived.
The blaze killed 35 people on board and one person in the ground crew; 62 passengers and crew members survived.   (AP Photo/Murray Becker, file)
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