Last survivor of the Hindenburg disaster has died, family says

On this day: May 6
Gus Pasquerella/U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons
1937: The German zeppelin Hindenburg catches fire and is destroyed within a minute while attempting to dock at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Of the 97 people on board, 35 people died, along with one death among the ground crew. The disaster was the subject of spectacular newsreel coverage and the incident destroyed public confidence in the hydrogen-filled airships, marking the end of an era.

The last survivor of the Hindenburg airship disaster, Werner Gustav Doehner, has died, according to his family.

Doehner, 90, passed away at a hospital in Laconia, New Hampshire, on November 8, his son, Bernie Doehner, told CNN.

Werner Doehner was 8 years old on May 6, 1937, when the infamous airship went up in flames and crashed in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 people. Doehner’s sister and father were among them. Sixty-two people survived.

“It basically robbed him of his father and sister, and left him with lasting scars,” Bernie Doehner said, adding that his father generally did not talk about the incident. “He had one all down his leg and he had nine skin graft operations and one of his ears was badly damaged,” he said.

“He was so badly burned, he was blind for many months,” he said.

In a 2017 interview with the Associated Press, the elder Doehner recounted what happened when the airship, the pride of Nazi Germany, arrived from Germany and hovered above the New Jersey airfield. Hydrogen fueled an inferno.

“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 and older brother survived.

During the first half of the 20th century, airships — some measuring longer than two football fields — traversed the world’s oceans. The Hindenburg had sleeping berths for 72 passengers, dining areas, a lounge, a bar and a promenade.

Despite the fact that modern airships use non-flammable helium to achieve flight, the Hindenburg tragedy made any return to the widespread use of airships for travel unlikely, experts say. That’s largely blamed on those famous black and white newsreel images of the airship crashing and burning in New Jersey on that tragic day in 1937.

Werner Doehner experienced lasting trauma from the disaster, his son said. For example, he didn’t like pancakes because they were served at the hospital where he was taken to receive treatment, Bernie said.

According to his obituary, Doehner was born in Darmstadt, Germany, but spent his childhood in Mexico City. He married his wife, Elin, in July 1967.

In 1984, the family moved to the United States, where Doehner worked for General Electric as an electrical engineer, the obituary said. He eventually retired in 1999 from the New England Electric System.

Bernie said he wants his father to be remembered as a “good family man who believed in, definitely, education of his kids and a strong work ethic.”

CNN’s Phil Gast contributed to this report.