Herbert Morrison was a radio news broadcaster that witnessed the Hindenburg Disaster while he was recording a live coverage of the attempted landing of the airship on May 6th, 1937. Little is known of Morrison's early life, his career prior to the on-site report he gave of the Hindenburg's fiery destruction and of his career subsequent to the tragedy.
Biography[edit | edit source]
Morrison was born on May 14th, 1905 in the small town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh near Scottdale. He was the son of Walter Lindsay and Bertha Oglevee Morrison. By the time Morrison was five years old, the family was living on Market Street in nearby Scottdale Borough, three miles north of Connellsville. The family did not include his father, who passed away when Morrison was just a toddler. According to the 1910 U.S. census, the household included his widowed mother, his grandmother, an older brother, and an adult cousin, Nettie Herbert, who worked as a stenographer at a local “sheet mill.” In addition to the several members of his family, two boarders paid to live with the Morrisons and served to provide an extra source of income. Morrison’s brother, Walter, was four years his elder and sometimes went by his middle name, Franklin.
Herbert Morrison’s mother supported their family by holding several jobs over the ensuing years while continuing to welcome extended family and borders. When Morrison was fourteen years old, his mother was employed as a saleslady in a jewelry store. Ten years later, in 1930, she worked as a radiotrician in Scottdale. Little did she know that her position in communications foreshadowed Morrison’s future vocation. It’s surely possible that her job influenced Morrison who was now 24, still living at home, and working a dead-end job as a salesman in a shoe store. Seven years later, he would be working in a new profession that would change the course of his life.
At some point after 1930, Morrison was employed as a news reporter for WLS, a large AM radio station affiliated with NBC News, in Chicago, Illinois. Because radio technology was relatively primitive in the 1930s, radio broadcasts were either aired live or not at all. Morrison's usual broadcast work was as an announcer on live musical programs, but his earlier successful reporting of Midwestern floods from an airplane led to his assignment. WLS reluctantly allowed Morrison to go to New Jersey to experiment with new recording technology that allowed audio reports to be aired at a later date.
The Hindenburg Disaster[edit | edit source]
Main Article (The Hindenburg Disaster)
On May 6th, 1937, Herbert Morrison's next assignment was to cover the landing of the Hindenburg, on it's first flight to
the United States of that year. He was accompanied by fellow co-worker Charlie Nehlsen to cover the landing of the giant airship at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Morrison wore a blue serge suit and a topcoat. Morrison arrived at the landing field early, as the Hindenburg had been expected to land that morning. However, the landing had been delayed by almost 12 hours due to stormy conditions over the Atlantic, which caused the airship to deal with crosswinds that slowed the ship down. The airship still flew through the storm without any major troubles though. However, another rainstorm had blown over Lakehurst. This ended up causing further delays in the landing. During the process, Morrison and Nehlsen set up their broadcasting equipment inside of a small station that was positioned in between the mooring mast and the hangar, which the Hindenburg would be docked to.
Morrison and Nehlsen waited for almost 10 hours. The Hindenburg circled around New York City and close to New Jersey. Eventually, Commander Rosendahl reported that the storm had passed, and the Hindenburg was clear to land. Morrison began his broadcast at 7:15 as the airship began to head towards the landing field. Morrison watched through his window as the airship appeared out of the clouds and over the landing field. Stepping outside, Morrison watched in awe as the massive airship circled over the landing field above his head. Morrison reported the efforts of the landing crew to land the vessel in the rain. Morrison mistakenly thought there were 106 people aboard the flight when in reality there were 97 aboard. As the ship began to dump water ballast, Morrison and Nehlsen noticed that the ship was tail-heavy by only a few degrees. After attempting to right itself out, the crew dropped the landing ropes for the ground crew to pull the ship towards the mooring mast, where Morrison was standing. Everything seemed to go fine until 7:25 when the unimaginable happened.
Disaster[edit | edit source]
Suddenly, without warning the airship caught fire. Morrison was shocked and terrified and began to report the horror that was unfolding in front of his eyes. He watched as an entire hydrogen bag exploded, and the ship began to fall to the ground, beginning to be engulfed in fire. Nehlsen stayed by Morrison, watching in terror as well. Morrison, trying not to scream, reported every detail of the airship's crash. He witnessed horrified passengers leaping for their lives, spectators
underneath the airship screaming and running, and ground crew members scattering for cover. As the ship crashed to the ground, Morrison saw flaming people falling from the airship, causing him to break down in tears. As the airship was engulfed, Morrison feared the worst, that all of the people still trapped inside were killed (some were, while many others miraculously survived). As the airship collapsed to the ground in a pile of tangled metal, Morrison exclaimed "Oh the Humanity!" His most famous quote of the whole disaster. He was so distraught, he needed to take five to calm down. During his break, he openly sobbed along with Nehlsen, who was equally shaken.
Aftermath[edit | edit source]
After calming down, Morrison began to report the rescue efforts as the airfield's rescue and ground crew members and the Lakehurst Fire Department arrived on the scene to extinguish the fire, as the diesel fuel was still burning. Many people had been pulled from the airship, and Morrison witnessed injured passengers, airship crew members, spectators, and ground crew members being carried to the Hangar, to serve as a temporary hospital, until ambulances would transfer them to nearby hospitals close to the area. Morrison also told the viewers a clearer explanation of what happened, saying that four minutes after the landing lines were dropped, a fire broke out close to the tail fins, followed by a massive explosion, causing the ship to fall to the ground. Morrison still feared that over a hundred people could have been dead, and only a few passengers survived. Morrison had to take a few breaks for a few seconds, as he was still shaken by the events
Morrison knew that the fire was caused by hydrogen accidentally igniting, but he didn't really know what set it off. He predicted two theories on the scene; Either some kind of static spark set off the ship's hydrogen due to the rain earlier, or as the ship was being pulled to the ground with the landing ropes, the tension of the wind blowing on the ship and the ropes being pulled caused the ship to buckle under the stress, snapping bracing wire, causing a spark that ignited hydrogen ("They had dropped two ropes and whether or not some spark or something set it on fire we don’t know, or whether something pulled loose on the inside of the ship causing a spark and causing it to explode in the tail surface.").
Morrison also interviewed survivors of the disaster. Running towards the wreckage, Morrison saw a girl named Catherine Magone and grabbed her by the arm and asked her name and who she was looking for. Irritated, she tried to pull away from him. "Go away! I have to find my father!"
"Tell me his name!" begged Morrison. "If he's saved, I'll broadcast his name so that your mother will know he's safe." Catherine gave him her father's name, Philip Mangone and began to run again toward the wreckage. In fact, Mangone's name was among the first to be reported among the survivors by the press. Initially, the list of surviving passengers included only Mangone (misspelled "Mongon"), Joseph Spah, and Clifford Osbun.
Morrison then turned his head to see Philip, severely burned and stumbling arguing with crew members, desperately demanding to know where his family was. Morrison helped the injured man find his way back to his family. He then returned to broadcasting, announcing many of the survivors, including Joesph Späh, Clifford Osbunand Philip. He also reported on how they escaped.
After the broadcast was complete, Morrison and Nehlsen left Lakehurst and turned sent their tapes by airplane to Chicago. Morrison soon got relieving word that out of 97 on board, 62 survived. 35 people died in addition to one fatality on the ground. The frightening broadcast was played that night in full length. Portions were rebroadcast nationally by the NBC Radio network the next day. It was the first time that recordings of a news event were ever broadcast, and also the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast. However, Nehlsen's Presto 6D recorder ran about 3% slow, causing Morrison's voice to sound different from how it actually was, and that Morrison's normal speaking and radio announcer voice was actually quite deep as evidenced by other recordings of his voice from the same era. Despite this, Morrison's quick professional response and accurate description combined with his own emotional reaction have made the recordings a classic of audio history.
Later Life[edit | edit source]
Morrison later served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and was the first news director at WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh. He also ran for Congress three times as a Pennsylvania Republican. Prior to retirement, he served as a technical adviser for the 1975 film, The Hindenburg and developed a radio and television section at West Virginia University. He died in his home in 1989.
Legacy[edit | edit source]
Herbert Morrison's radio broadcast is the most remembered moment of the entire disaster. It also the most famous news broadcast in the history of the world. Morrison's description has been dubbed onto the newsreel film of the crash, giving the impression of the modern television-style broadcast. However, at the time, newsreels were separately narrated in a studio, and Morrison's words were not heard in theaters. However, those who saw the footage and listened to Morrison's words lost confidence in the entire Zeppelin program, resulting in the downfall of the golden airship era.
Quotes[edit | edit source]
"It's practically standing still now they've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and (uh) they've been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again; it's... the rain had (uh) slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it (uh) just enough to keep it from...It's burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It's fire... and it's crashing! It's crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It's burning and bursting into flames and the... and it's falling on the mooring mast and all the folks between it. This is terrible; this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it's... [unintelligible] its flames... Crashing, oh! oh, four or five hundred
feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. There’s smoke, and there’s flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here! I told you; it – I can't even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It's... it... it's a... ah! I... I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it's just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. I... I... I'm sorry. Honest: I... I can hardly breathe. I... I'm going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that's terrible. Ah, ah... I can't. Listen, folks; I... I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed."
— Herbert Morrison, Transcription of WLS radio broadcast describing the Hindenburg disaster.
"The terrible amount of hydrogen gas in it just caused the -- the tail surface broke into flames first. Then there was a terrific explosion and that followed by the burning of the nose and the crashing nose into the ground. And everybody tearing back at break-neck speed to get out from underneath it because it was over the people at the time it burst into flames. Now whether it fell on the people who were witnessing it we do not know. But as it exploded they raced back."
"I should imagine that the nose is not more than 500 feet or maybe 700 feet from the mooring mast. They had dropped two ropes and whether or not some spark or something set it on fire we don’t know, or whether something pulled loose on the inside of the ship causing a spark and causing it to explode in the tail surface. But everything crashed to the ground and there’s not a possible chance of anybody being saved."
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm back again. I raced down to the burning tip and just as I walked up to the tip over -- climbed over those picket lines, I met a man coming out, a dazed, dazed -- He couldn't find his way. I grabbed a hold of him. It’s Philip Mangone, Philip Mangone, that’s [M]-A-N-G-O-N-E, of New York.
Philip Mangone, he’s burned terribly in the hands, and he’s burned terribly in the face. His eyebrows, all his hair is burned off but he’s walking and talking plainly and distinctly. And he told me he jumped; he jumped with other passengers.
Now there's a Mr. Trey -- it sounds like "Trey" -- we’re not sure of it and he also got out. Now it is our sincere hope that the majority of the passengers jumped when it came close to the ground, according to what Mr. Mangone told me. He said, "Thank God he jumped." And -- and we say thank God for him also."