Last survivor of Hindenburg disaster: ‘The air was on fire’

A May 6, 1937 file photo provided by the Philadelphia Public Ledger shows the moment the Hindenburg exploded over the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. (AP)
Updated 08 May 2017
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Last survivor of Hindenburg disaster: ‘The air was on fire’

TRENTON, N.J.: Wind and thunderstorms had delayed the Hindenburg’s arrival in New Jersey from Germany on May 6, 1937. The father of 8-year-old Werner Doehner headed to his cabin after using his movie camera to shoot some scenes of Lakehurst Naval Air Station from the airship’s dining room.
“We didn’t see him again,” recalled Doehner, now 88 and the only person left of the 62 passengers and crew who survived the fire that killed his father, sister and 34 other souls 80 years ago Saturday.
Doehner and his parents, older brother and sister were returning from a vacation in Germany and planned to travel on the 804-foot-long Hindenburg to Lakehurst, 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 executive.
The kids would have preferred the decks and public rooms of an ocean liner because space was tight on the airship, Doehner said in a rare telephone interview this week with The Associated Press from his home in Parachute, Colorado.
Their mother brought games to keep the children busy. They toured the control car and the catwalks inside the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg. They could see an ice field as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he remembered.
As the Hindenburg arrived at its destination, flames began to flicker on top of the ship.
Hydrogen, exposed to air, fueled an inferno. The front section of the Hindenburg pitched up and the back section pitched down.
“Suddenly the air was on fire,” Doehner said.
“We were close to a window, and my mother took my brother and threw him out. She grabbed me and fell back, and then threw me out,” he said.
“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 get out of there.” 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.
From there, the family was taken to Point Pleasant Hospital. Doehner had burns on his face, both hands and down his right leg from the knee. His mother had burns on 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.
He would remain in the hospital for three months before going to a hospital in New York City in August for skin grafts. He was discharged in January, and the boy, a German speaker, had learned some English.
The family returned to Mexico City, where funerals were held for Doehner’s father and sister, who were among the 35 fatalities of the 97 passengers and crew aboard the airship. A worker on the ground also died.
The US Commerce Department determined the accident was caused by a leak of the hydrogen that kept the airship aloft. It mixed with air, causing a fire. “The theory that a brush discharge ignited such mixture appears most probable,” the department’s report said.
Eight decades later, Doehner is the only one left to remember what it was like on the Hindenburg that night. A ceremony commemorating the disaster took place at the crash site Saturday night.


UK Cabinet to meet after Britain, EU reach draft Brexit deal

Updated 23 min 12 sec ago
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UK Cabinet to meet after Britain, EU reach draft Brexit deal

LONDON: Negotiators from Britain and the European Union have struck a proposed divorce deal that will be presented to politicians on both sides for approval, officials in London and Brussels said Tuesday.
After a year and a half of stalled talks, false starts and setbacks, negotiators agreed on proposals to resolve the main outstanding issue: the Irish border.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said the Cabinet would hold a special meeting Wednesday to consider the proposal. Its support isn’t guaranteed: May is under pressure from pro-Brexit ministers not to make further concessions to the EU.
Ambassadors from the 27 other EU countries are also due to hold a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday.
May told the Cabinet earlier Tuesday that “a small number” of issues remain to be resolved in divorce negotiations with the European Union, while her deputy, David Lidington, said the two sides are “almost within touching distance” of a Brexit deal.
Britain wants to seal a deal this fall, so that Parliament has time to vote on it before the UK leaves the bloc on March 29. The European Parliament also has to approve any agreement.
Negotiators have been meeting late into the night in Brussels in a bid to close the remaining gaps.
The main obstacle has long been how to ensure there are no customs posts or other checks along the border between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.
Irish national broadcaster RTE said the draft agreement involves a common customs arrangement for the UK and the EU, to eliminate the need for border checks.
But May faces pressure from pro-Brexit Cabinet members not to agree to an arrangement that binds Britain to EU trade rules indefinitely.
May also faces growing opposition from pro-EU lawmakers, who say her proposed Brexit deal is worse than the status quo and the British public should get a new vote on whether to leave or to stay.
If there is no agreement soon, UK businesses will have to start implementing contingency plans for a “no-deal” Brexit — steps that could include cutting jobs, stockpiling goods and relocating production and services outside Britain.
Even with such measures in place, the British government says leaving the EU without a deal could cause major economic disruption, with gridlock at ports and disruption to supplies of foods, goods and medicines.
On Tuesday, the European Commission published a sheaf of notices outlining changes in a host of areas in the event of a no-deal Brexit. They point to major disruption for people and businesses: UK truckers’ licenses won’t be valid in the EU, British airlines will no longer enjoy traffic rights, and even British mineral water will cease to be recognized as such by the EU.
The EU said Tuesday it was proposing visa-free travel for UK citizens on short trips, even if there is no deal — but only if Britain reciprocates.
“We need to prepare for all options,” EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said. On a deal, he said: “We are not there yet.”
Meanwhile, official figures suggest Brexit is already having an impact on the British workforce.
The Office for National Statistics said the number of EU citizens working in the country — 2.25 million— was down 132,000 in the three months to September from the year before. That’s the largest annual fall since comparable records began in 1997.
Most of the fall is due to fewer workers from eight eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004.
Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London, said the prospect of Brexit “has clearly made the UK a much less attractive place for Europeans to live and work.”