Werner Franz, last survivor of the Hindenburg tragedy, dies

It was announced only last Friday that 92 year-old Werner Franz passed away on August 13, in Frankfurt, suffering a cardiac standstill. According to his widow Annerose he is supposed to be the last survivor of the Hindenburg crash in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, leaving 35 of the 97 travelers and crew members of the big airship dead.

Last journey to the U.S. – the majestic Hindenburg only minutes before the Lakehurst explosion  /  source: Zeppelin Museum
Last journey to the U.S. – the majestic Hindenburg only minutes before the Lakehurst explosion / source: Zeppelin Museum

It was the fifth journey of the then 14 year old cabin boy with the mighty Zeppelin, the largest airship ever built. While landing at Lakehurst the 245 meter long LZ 129, filled with 200,000 cubic meters of hydrogen, caught suddenly fire with the flammable gas exploding. What led to the catastrophe, one of the worst in aviation until then, has not yet been fully elucidated.
Helium in any case would not have been combustible - but that wasn’t available in Hitler’s Third Reich due to an international boycott.

 

A guardian angel must have protected him
Franz’s survival reminds of a miracle in view of the inferno.

It is almost a miracle that 62 people survived the Lakehurst catastrophe  /  source: Zeppelin Museum
It is almost a miracle that 62 people survived the Lakehurst catastrophe / source: Zeppelin Museum

When realizing the explosion “I felt a violent jerk and wanted to jump,” he much later described the situation. But at first he couldn’t because hundreds of liters water pouring down on him from a toppled tank, caused him to lose his balance and to fall to the cabin floor. But instantly Werner regained control again, jumping out of the burning carcass and landing on the ground without the slightest injury. The rest was a matter of running away from the tragedy as fast as he could and not get hit by the cascading debris.
Two years after the Lakehurst crash the Second World War commenced with Werner Franz starting his military duty as radio operator and later instructor. He also survived the war, becoming a telecommunication engineer in civil life. Alongside his professional career he engaged in sports, coaching junior teams of Frankfurt’s Roller Skating and Hockey Club (FREC).

Werner Franz  /  source: private
Werner Franz / source: private

He shied away from talking about the catastrophe
During his entire life, Werner Franz never made a big fuss about being one of the Lakehurst survivors. But flashlight, notes his widow Annerose, always irritated him and got him instantly nervous into old age.


From Zeppelins to Blimps    
The tragic end of LZ 129, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s masterpiece, also ended the era of rigid airships like the Hindenburg. Not a single Zeppelin resembling the original models was ever built in the years after.

 

However, the fascinating “lighter than air” technique survived by producing a new generation of non-rigid airships, which - unlike their Zeppelin predecessors - have no internal structural framework.

Next generation: A Zeppelin NT (New Technology) seen above Friedrichshafen  /  source: Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei
Next generation: A Zeppelin NT (New Technology) seen above Friedrichshafen / source: Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei

These Blimp named airships commonly rely on the pressure of helium as lifting gas, in contrast to hydrogen. And also a number of technically completely modernized airships bearing the old Zeppelin name on their hull celebrated their successful rebirth.


In 1997, the first of a new series produced on the historical ground in Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance, where the Hindenburg and other Zeppelins were once manufactured, took to the air applauded by a large crowd of spectators.


Heiner Siegmund

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