In early May 1937, 8-year-old Werner G. Doehner and his family boarded the Hindenburg for a trans-Atlantic flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to New Jersey. As the zeppelin attempted to land at the Lakehurst Navy Air Base on the night of May 6, it burst into flames, killing 36 of the 97 people onboard. Doehner’s father and sister were among those who died in the accident—now considered one of the most notorious in aviation history—but the boy himself survived despite suffering severe burns to his face, arms and legs.
As Mariel Padilla reports for the New York Times, Doehner was, in fact, the last remaining survivor of the Hindenburg disaster prior to his death at age 90 on November 8. According to Doehner’s son, Bernie, the cause of death was complications stemming from pneumonia.
The Hindenburg was an 800-foot long airship intended to be “a huge flying billboard for German aeronautical supremacy,” historian Rick Zitarosa of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society tells Padilla. Powered by highly flammable hydrogen gas, the zeppelin had made multiple successful North Atlantic crossings prior to the explosion, carrying more than 1,000 passengers on 10 scheduled trips between Germany and the United States.
The vessel’s last journey, however, would end in tragedy. The ship departed Germany on May 3, 1937, with 36 passengers and 61 crew members on board, but its landing was delayed due to poor weather conditions. As the Hindenburg finally descended toward the ground on May 6, it caught fire, likely due to an electrostatic discharge that had ignited leaking hydrogen. The hull burned up in seconds, creating a horrific scene captured on both film and radio.
In the decades after the incident, Doehner worked as an electrical engineer in Mexico, Ecuador and the United States, where he settled with his family in 1984. He remained largely silent about the disaster that had blighted his childhood; as Bernie tells the Associated Press’ Kathy McCormack, “It was definitely a repressed memory.” Once, Bernie’s father took him to the Lakehurst Navy Air Base, the site of the explosion. But the pair did not visit the nearby Hindenburg memorial.
Ahead of the 80th anniversary of the explosion in 2017, Doehner gave a rare interview to the AP’s Shawn Marsh. At the time of the disaster, he said, the Doehner family was returning from a vacation to Germany; the plan was to take the Hindenburg to New Jersey before traveling on to New York and Mexico City, where Doehner’s father worked as a pharmaceutical executive. Doehner’s parents, brother and sister were all on board the flight.
Much of the journey proceeded uneventfully. The children played games their mother had brought to entertain them and toured the zeppelin’s control car and catwalks . As the Hindenburg started approaching Lakehurst, Doehner’s father pulled out his video camera to film the ground below. Then, he headed back to his cabin.
“We didn’t see him again,” Doehner told Marsh.
When the ship erupted in flames, Doehner’s mother grabbed her sons and pushed them out a window. She tried to do the same with her daughter, but the girl was “too heavy,” Doehner later recalled. “[M]y mother decided to get out by the time the zeppelin was nearly on the ground.”
Her hip broken, Doehner’s mother asked a steward to rescue her daughter from the burning wreckage. But by morning, the girl was dead.
The surviving family members all sustained serious burns. Doehner stayed in the hospital for three months before being sent to New York City to receive skin grafts.
“Burns take a long time to heal,” he said.
Psychological scars lingered, too: “My dad was secretive about the disaster,” Bernie tells Padilla. “[He] didn’t like to talk about it.”