“Oh, the humanity!”
It was 80 years ago Saturday that a radio announcer from Chicago stood at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey and uttered those words into a microphone as the German airship burst into flames, killing 35 of the 97 people on board and one on the ground.
Word went out as Robert Okin of The Associated Press telegraphed the news one minute later, according to AP Archives.
But Herb Morrison’s words were not heard live that day in 1937, nor were they linked to the film shot by four newsreel crews on the scene. Yet the Hindenburg became the first multimedia air disaster of the 20th century, and Morrison made broadcast history.
“It was one of the real moments in media history that had a broadcaster reacting to something totally unexpected,” said Ron Simon, senior curator of television and radio at New York City’s Paley Center for Media.
Morrison’s voice was being recorded on a transcription disc as he described the airship’s arrival, Simon said. The disc was running slowly, so his voice sounded higher when played back.
“It’s burst into flames!” he shouted. “It’s fire, and it’s crashing!”
For about 40 minutes, Morrison described the final moments, pausing when emotions got the best of him, and interviewed witnesses. But his report wasn’t heard until the next day.
Simon said the radio networks had to decide what to do because they had a policy against playing recorded material. NBC decided to play it once, while others used excerpts.
No one is certain when Morrison’s words were merged with the film, but it was long after the disaster.
“To this day, there’s a generation that associates the two,” said radio historian Steve Darnall, of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. “The report is so ingrained it is tempting to reappropriate it as a cliche that diminishes the emotional impact of hearing it.”
The recording, along with the newsreel, were played Friday at a dinner held by the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. The group, which has more than 200 members, preserves airship history.
President Carl Jablonski said time has not diminished interest in the Hindenburg.
“Younger people are drawn to it after seeing the footage and hearing the broadcast on the internet,” he said.
The group planned to gather on Saturday night at the crash site to lay wreaths in memory of those who died aboard the Hindenburg and for those in the military who have given their lives.
“We’re honoring people who lost their lives as pioneers who made today’s air travel what it is,” Jablonski said.
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