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Reading Selection, Lesson 20

The Properties of Hydrogen and the Death of an Airship

Click here for audio and Spanish translation
Click to see the  size of a blue whale. Click to see the comparative size of the Titanic. Click to see the  size of the space shuttle. Click to see the size of the Hindenburg. Click to see the size of the Empire State Building Click to see the  size of a Boeing 747

The Hindenburg was bigger than a jumbo jet and almost as long as the Titanic. (Click to see the size of other items in comparison)

Date: Thursday
May 6, 1937
Time: 7:25 p.m.
Location: Lakehurst Air Station, New Jersey

As the 804-foot-long, hydrogen-filled airship, the Hindenburg, passed over Lakehurst Air Station, it turned to make its final approach. The crew opened ballast tanks to slow its descent, and water gushed from the bottom of the ship, soaking the mooring party below. Everyone at the station was watching the Hindenburg as this masterpiece of modern technology hovered 200 feet above the ground. Near the giant airship, some members of the press adjusted their cameras and sound recorders while others scribbled in their notebooks. In the parking lot, more photographers stood on the tops of cars, attempting to get a better view.

The Hindenburg flying over New York city

The hydrogen-filled airship, Hindenburg, flies over New York City. Why was hydrogen used to fill this airship?



Inside the cabin of the Hindenburg, some of the passengers were looking down at the crowds below, searching for the faces of family and friends. They could see the landing crew preparing to catch the ropes dropped from the airship. Suddenly, a deep thump emanated from the stern of the airship. People on the ground began to scream, and the men waiting below the airship began to run. The sky lit up.

Inside the airship, all was chaos. In the officers' mess hall, Werner Franz, a 14-year-old cabin boy, was clearing away plates. As he reached into a cupboard, he felt the whole ship jerk. Plates from the cupboard fell on top of him. He managed to get up and stumble out into the gangway. Everything seemed to be on fire. A huge wall of flames was coming straight at him.

The Hindenburg partially engulfed in flames

Just before docking, the Hindenburg burst into flames.

What Werner didn't know was that during docking, the fabric surrounding the hydrogen envelope that kept the ship aloft had somehow ignited. Not only did the fabric burn like dry paper, it started an explosive chemical reaction between the hydrogen inside the envelope and the oxygen in the air. The German engineers who had designed the Hindenburg had chosen the wrong materials to make an airship. They had built a floating bomb!

Frantically, Werner scrambled away from the flames, toward the front of the airship. The ship lurched again, tilting backward toward the stern. Werner fell and began to slide into the fire. Gathering all his strength, he desperately began to crawl along the floor away from the fire. He could feel the heat through the soles of his shoes. The flames were licking at his legs.

Suddenly, a gush of water knocked Werner flat against the floor. One of the ship's water tanks had burst above him, temporarily extinguishing the nearby fire. But a few seconds later, the fire was back.
The Hindenburg completely engulfed in flames
The fire consumed the entire airship. What substance was formed in this chemical reaction?

Werner grabbed at a nearby hatch, kicked it open, and jumped. Winded, he lay on the ground. Screams were still coming from all around. Pulling himself to his feet, he began to run away from the flames. He saw the Hindenburg's captain running in the opposite direction, back to the ship. He was trying to save some of the passengers. Werner turned to run back to help him. As he did so, he was grabbed from behind by an American naval officer, who pulled him to safety.

Thirty-five passengers and crew and one person on the ground died in the flames and wreckage of the Hindenburg, as did the dreams of its designers and travel by airship. All of this happened because two elements (which form water!) reacted together to create a disaster.


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