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Werner Franz

Survivor of the Hindenburg disaster.

Born: May 22, 1922; Died: August 13, 2014

Werner Franz, who has died aged 92, was a survivor of the crash of the Hindenburg, one of the most infamous disasters in aviation history. He was serving as a cabin boy on the great German air ship when it burst into flames as it came into land in New Jersey, and was lucky to escape by jumping out of a hatch. In all, 35 people died, 13 of whom were passengers and 22 crew members.

Franz, who was born in Frankfurt, had ended up on the ship by accident after his older brother, who was working in a hotel where the crew of the Hindenburg were staying, suggested his sibling for the post of cabin boy.

Franz got the job even though he was only 14 years old and completed several journeys to South America and the United States. It was hard work but prestigious too, as the Hindenburg was at the time seen as a fine example of German invention.

The scale of the airship was staggering: it was more than 800ft long, about three times the length of a Boeing 747, 135 feet in diameter and was powered by 16 bags filled with hydrogen.

Crewed by at least 40 people, it made its maiden voyage on March 3, 1936 and made 62 safe flights before its destruction on May 6, 1937.

Pathe News footage of the ship minutes before the disaster shows it was struggling to land as it approached its mooring at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey after three days crossing the Atlantic. It is thought an electric spark then ignited the hydrogen and the ship burst into flames.

Franz was working in the officers' mess at the time clearing dishes but managed to kick open a hatch used to bring supplies on to the ship. As the ship fell to the ground, he was able to jump to safety and run from the wreckage.

It is also thought he was helped in his escape by the fact that a large tank of water ruptured in the inferno and drenched him, meaning he was to some extent protected from the flames.

Franz suffered no injuries in the disaster and was one of 39 survivors among the Hindenburg's 61 crew. What did suffer was German national pride: the Hindenburg had been seen as a symbol of a resurgent nation but the disaster, in which the ship was destroyed in less than half a minute, damaged the image that the Nazis wished to project to the rest of the world.

Franz returned to Germany after the disaster and served as a radio operator in the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. After the war, he worked for the German postal service.

He is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren.

Contextual targeting label: 
Transport Tragedy

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