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What happened is familiar to anybody who has seen the black

May 6, 1997

LAKEHURST, N.J. (AP) _ What happened is familiar to anybody who has seen the black-and-white footage of flames peeling away the skin of the airship Hindenburg, or heard the eyewitness reporter’s frantic description of ``the humanity″ dying before him.

It’s the ``why″ that remains unanswered, 60 years after the 804-foot German zeppelin burst into flames, crashing in slow motion onto a New Jersey field.

On May 6, 1937, 10 hours late for its landing at Lakehurst Naval Air Station after a 2 1/2-day trip from Frankfurt, the ship descended to about 300 feet and crew members dropped lines to be moored.

Then it happened _ an explosion that killed 35 on board and a Navy crewman on the ground.

``All we saw was a big red glow inside, then she burst through the cover,″ remembers John Iannaccone, 86, who was a Navy crew member. ``We ran toward the ship. We saw one man jump out of the nose. He got killed. We saw another one running and everything was burned right off him. He died, too.

``We ran up to the passenger compartment and saw an old couple still sitting in there. They didn’t even know what had happened,″ Iannaccone said.

Among the reporters was Herbert Morrison, 31, recording the landing for radio station WLS in Chicago.

``It’s burning, bursting into flames. ... This is one of the worst catastrophes. ... Oh, the humanity,″ Morrison says in the famous recording.

The cause of the explosion was in dispute from the start. Tales of sabotage by Germans, though never supported by facts, continue to fuel conspiracy theories.

Investigations said the probable cause was a leak of hydrogen, the flammable, lighter-than-air gas that filled the airship, complicated by looming thunderstorms and a spark of static electricity from the landing lines dragging on the ground below.

But new evidence suggests it is more likely that a static spark ignited the cigar-shaped airship’s outer cover, which was made of cloth coated with a highly flammable varnish, former NASA hydrogen manager Addison Bain said in an article published this month by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum magazine.

He and airship historian Richard Van Treuren contend in the article that newsreel footage shows that the fire did not burn like a hydrogen fire. Flames from a hydrogen fire would have shot up toward the sky, they say, but the fire burned toward the ground.

Iannaccone, who watched from about 300 feet away, rejects the theory.

``I still believe it was static electricity and hydrogen. I’ll stand by it. I was there,″ he said.

Today, the site is virtually unchanged.

It wasn’t until 1987 that a Hindenburg memorial was built. The 15-foot long, diamond-shaped granite marker sits on a vacant airfield, nearly flush with the ground. On Tuesday night, the grandsons of the Navy crewman who died in the crash will lay a wreath at the site.

In Lakehurst, the ``Airship Capital of the World,″ airships icons are everywhere.

Borough Administrator Robert Morris has a plastic bag full of airship-shaped erasers and airship-shaped lapel pins for visitors to his office.

Morris, like other residents of this former railroad town 45 miles east of Philadelphia, doesn’t mind that the town’s name is synonymous with an aviation tragedy.

Mary Scilex, president of the Lakehurst Historical Society, said, ``We always say, `You can’t think about the Hindenburg without thinking of Lakehurst,′ and vice versa.″

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