Werner Franz, last surviving Hindenburg crew member, dies at 92

Werner Franz, last surviving Hindenburg crew member, dies at 92
Werner Franz, who was a 14-year-old cabin boy on the German airship Hindenburg, has died at 92. He was believed to have been the last surviving member of the airship's crew. (John Provan, Associated Press)

 Werner Franz

Last survivor of Hindenburg crew


Werner Franz, 92, believed to be the last surviving crew member of the German airship Hindenburg that crashed 77 years ago, died of heart failure Aug. 13 in his hometown of Frankfurt, his wife, Annerose, told the German news agency dpa.

Franz was a 14-year-old cabin boy when the hydrogen-filled Zeppelin caught fire and crashed in Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937. The disaster was captured by photographers, film crews and a radio broadcaster on the ground, making it one of history's most iconic air accidents. Among the casualties were 35 of the 97 people on board and a Navy crewman on the ground.

Luck and quick thinking meant that Franz was able to jump out of the burning Hindenburg as it fell to the ground, said historian John Provan, a longtime friend.

"Werner survived the crash without a scratch on him," Provan said.

Franz came to be on the Hindenburg by chance, Provan said.

"His older brother worked at a fancy hotel in Frankfurt where the passengers and the captain stayed overnight before the airship took off early in the morning," he said. "One of the captains said they were looking for a cabin boy and [his brother] heard about it."

Franz completed three journeys to South America and one to North America before the disaster.

The huge airship — as long as three football fields and 15 stories tall — was considered the most luxurious means to cross the Atlantic at the time. Its loss — widely attributed to static electricity that ignited leaking hydrogen — was a heavy blow to the image of a resurgent Germany that the Nazis wanted to project to the world.

"Werner was most fortunate because he was in the officers' mess cleaning up," Provan said. "Above him was a large tank of water that burst open and drenched him, which protected him a bit from the flames and the heat."

Franz was able to jump out of a cloth supply hatch onto the ground below and made the wise decision to run into the wind.

He returned to Germany and served as an aircraft technician during World War II, and was a roller- and ice-skating coach in later life.

Times wire services