Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Helmut Lau

Crew Member

Age: about 25

Hometown: Friedrichshafen, Germany

Occupation: Helmsman

Location at time of fire: Ladder leading into lower fin


Helmut Lau was born in Friedrichshafen, the son of Bernhard Lau, who was one of Count von Zeppelin's first airship captains. Luftschiffkapitän Lau had been flying Zeppelins since the early days when they would take off from and land on Lake Constance, and had later gone on to command test flights of the Navy's wartime Zeppelin L59 (which was later flown to Africa and back again) and the LZ-120 Bodensee, the first passenger airship built following World War I.

Helmut Lau followed in his father's footsteps, training on the LZ-127 as a helmsman, and then transferring over to the new ship, the LZ-129 Hindenburg, when it was put into service in 1936. Lau was one of three helmsmen on the Hindenburg's final flight, the others being Alfred Bernhardt and Kurt Schönherr. He had been with the ship as a helmsman since its maiden flight on March 4th, 1936. Lau was also one of three Hindenburg crewmen (the others being Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter and watch officer Captain Walter Ziegler) who were also ranking Nazi officers, Lau himself being a sturmführer (second lieutenant) in the S.S. According to Captain Heinrich Bauer, Lau kept an eye on his fellow crewmembers, but was in Bauer's words "basically harmless" and an airshipman first and foremost.

One of the Hindenburg's helmsmen, probably Helmut Lau, at the rudder wheel. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

As the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst on its final flight, Lau was off watch and in the crew's mess eating his dinner when the signal for landing stations was blown shortly after 7:00 p.m. He immediately went aft to his landing station at the auxiliary control stand at Ring 33.5 in the lower fin. He briefly walked forward to look out the observation window on the starboard side of the fin, saw that the ship was still a fair distance from the mooring circle, and returned to his station near the auxiliary elevator wheel. Noting that the ship wasn't yet close enough to the ground for him to need to take variometer readings (Lau was tasked with manning the aft variometer, which measured the ship's rate of descent) he returned to the starboard observation window. He watched as the landing lines dropped from the bow and were picked up and taken up by the ground crew. The Hindenburg had by this time come to a complete stop, and Lau noted that it was drifting slightly to starboard.

Helmut Lau's location at the time of the fire.
(Hindenburg structural diagram courtesy of David Fowler)

Over the years, carefully-selected fragments and paraphrases of Lau's subsequent testimony concerning what happened next have appeared in numerous publications and documentaries. They often appear to support varied and sometimes wildly conflicting theories as to the cause of the Hindenburg fire.

What follows, therefore, is an unedited section from Helmut Lau's subsequent testimony to the Board of Inquiry, in which he describes what he saw at the outset of the fire. The testimony is dated May 18, 1937, and translated (as Lau was making his statement) from German to English for the board by Willy von Meister, director of the American branch of the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei:

"[Rigger Hans] Freund was pulling at the hauling-in line for that steel cable located in the fin. He called out to me that it was not running clear on the starboard side and that I was to release it. I proceeded up to unfasten this line that had fouled and passed by Mr. Sauter [Rudolf Sauter, the ship's chief engineer] who was looking out of the port window. I went up the first ladder, which is approximately two meters high, 6-1/2 feet. I then proceeded along the narrow catwalk that is on the port side of the fin, approximately 7 feet or 2 meters off the lower edge of the fin. I then got hold of the ladder that leads further up to the catwalk, with one hand, and with the other hand I released the steel cable that had fouled. I then waited to see if the cable would go over now that it was being pulled up, and was looking up and was facing the port side of the fin."

I heard over me a muffled detonation and looked up and saw from the starboard side down inside the gas cell a bright reflection on the front bulkhead of cell No. 4. The gas cell was approximately at the line that I have indicated on Exhibit 10. I therefore could see from there to the point that I am indicating. I could see from my position at this point to approximately the position indicated. Here and here I saw no fire at first. I saw it on the front side of cell 4. The bright reflection in the cell was inside. I saw it through the cell. It was at first red and yellow and there was smoke in it. The cell did not burst on the lower side. The cell suddenly disappeared by the heat."

"The fire proceeded further down and then it got air. The flame became very bright and the fire rose up to the side, more to the starboard side, as I remember seeing it, and I saw that with the flame aluminum parts and fabric parts were thrown up. In that same moment the forward cell and the back cell of cell 4 also caught fire, cell 3 and cell 5. At that time parts of girders, molten aluminum and fabric parts started to tumble down from the top. The whole thing only lasted a fraction of a second."

"I turned around and pulled in my head - I had no hat on - and jumped back underneath the girder to which the telephone is attached. Whilst I was jumping back, I noticed that the ship was dropping rapidly. The ship at the moment that the explosion went up had an acceleration down. As I ran back, I saw Mr. Sauter, who was lying on the floor and had his hands over his head, and I did not see the machinist, [Richard] Kollmer, at that moment, who operates the landing wheel. The reason that I did not see him was that I was looking out of the window, watching the ground to gauge the moment when the ship would hit. During the descent it was extremely bright in the lower fin. I did not feel the heat during the descent, only during the descent pieces of aluminum, molten aluminum, and bits of fabric were tumbling down constantly."

"During the descent I stood with my back to the direction of flight. That is, I was looking astern and down. The ship then cracked onto the ground with great force. I felt everything was collapsing from above, and I fell to the right. Freund, who must have been standing somewhere behind me, fell over me at that time, but I did not see him, only after we were lying on the ground I saw him."

"In the moment of the ship crashing on the ground, Mr. Sauter apparently regained consciousness and he yelled at us to get out. At that time, intense heat and smoke was also observed. We were lying on the inside of the outer cover and wanted to get out through the outer cover. This was not possible, however, because the outer cover was resting on the ground. In other words, the lower fin had laid itself over on the left side, on the ground, and I looked up. I saw Kollmer climbing out of the entrance hatch in the fin. Sauter yelled to us that we could get out at that point. Then Freund emerged and got out, and I got out, and Freund assisted me to get out, and Freund ran away, and I looked around once more and I saw Mr. Sauter coming out with blood streaming down his face. I got hold of him and pulled him out. We then ran about 20 meters away from the ship, and I did not see Mr. Kollmer anymore.= Freund and Sauter were still with me.

"When we first examined each other to see if we were hurt, I had nothing the matter with me; Mr. Sauter had a bleeding wound on his head, and Freund had burns on the back of his head and on the side of his cheek. Kollmer was limping away from the wreck. We could not do anything because the wind was coming from port and was blowing the flames and the smoke to the starboard side. Sauter and Freund and myself then ran around the stern side of the ship to the port side, and I no longer saw Freund. I lost sight of him. Sauter ran for the port rear engine, and there were sailors from the Lakehurst ground crew. They wanted to hold Mr. Sauter back because I think they were afraid that the fuel tanks might still explode at that point. I was still a little further aft, and heard screaming from inside the wreck at approximately this point (indicating)."

Thus, Helmut Lau was the person with the clearest vantage point of the origin of the fire, although by his own admission he didn't literally see the initial burst of fire, but rather heard the "pop" of the fire igniting and the glow of the fire through gas cell #4. As part of his testimony, Lau filled out a diagram on which he sketched the ladders and gas cells near his position, as well as marking his field of view and the point at which he first saw the fire.

Helmut Lau's witness diagram, filled out for the Board of Inquiry investigation.

Helmut Lau testifying before the Board of Inquiry, May 18th, 1937.

Though analysis of the details presented in his testimony can, when taken in context, produce a few different interpretations as to what exactly might have started the fire, it's clear that Lau, along with Freund, Kollmer, and Sauter, was very close to the fire's point of origin (Lau was perhaps 60 or 70 feet below and aft of the spot where he first saw the glow of the fire), and that Lau himself saw the fire take hold and spread from deep within the ship's hull.

Remarkably, Helmut Lau was uninjured in the crash, and returned to Germany via steamship not long after the disaster. He survived World War II, though he did spend time in a British POW camp. Due to his considerable multilingual ability, Lau acted as a translator for occupation forces after the war. He later worked in Düsseldorf as an engineer, and lived in a number of other places (including Heidenheim and the Spanish town of Dénia) before eventually settling in Merzig, where he married and had two sons and a daughter.

Special thanks to Helmut Lau's granddaughter Irina Philippi for providing details of her grandfather's life.


Anonymous said...

He was my grandpa and died in 1996 in Merzig/Germany. Thank you for the post!
Greetz from Germany,

Patrick Russell said...

Hello Irina,

Wow! I had no idea that your grandfather lived such a long life. That's great to hear.

I would love to learn more about him from you, if you have some memories of him or stories of his life that you'd like to share with me. I only know what I've read about him in a few books and documents.

Thanks for posting, and I'm very glad you like the article I wrote on your grandfather.

Herzliche Wünschen aus Chicago!


Alexander Lau said...

Irina, I am probably related to you, as my family, the Lau's had come from this area to Pennsylvania (York, Pittsburgh and Cleveland).

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Alexander,

Drop me a quick note via email, and I'll see if I can connect the two of you up.


Alexander Lau said...

Special Dinner Exploring German Innovation in “Lighter Than Air Craft”

‘The Last Dinner on the Hindenburg’

Saturday August 23, 2014

Many of us have heard of the Hindenburg disaster, which essentially ended lighter than air craft passenger service with the fiery wreck on Thursday, May 6, 1937.

The only vestiges of the technology are the “Blimps” we see over football games.

We are having a special dinner (mimicking the menu of the last dinner on ship), serving the menu of the last dinner on board ship along with an informative speaker and visual production on the mystery of the airship’s destruction by Historian Leo Sweeney. Despite the fiery crash, most passengers survived. The confluence of the mysterious disaster and the start of German National Socialist Party domination of Germany provide an interesting insight, into the history of the twentieth century.

The four course dinner will be served by the “Singing Airmen” (Luftschiff Besatzung Sängers) from our Männerchor and their earnings and tips will go toward the fund for the Männerchor singing tour through Europe.

Please make your reservations (REQUIRED) for this interesting and delicious dinner (a children’s dinner is also available) for Saturday, August 23 2014 at or (412) 231-9141.

Alexander Lau said...

I really wish I could touch base with the Lau's in the Bodensee region. There's no doubt we are related and to Helmut as well. I see my granfather's eyes in his. :-)