Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wilhelm Steeb

Crew member

Age: Unknown

Hometown: Esslingen am Neckar, Germany

Occupation: Engine mechanic (trainee)

Location at time of fire: Engine gondola #3 - starboard forward


Wilhelm Steeb was one of several trainees who made the last flight of the Hindenburg. He was a mechanic with Daimler-Benz AG in Untertürkheim, near Stuttgart, and on January 2nd, 1937, Steeb was hired by the Zeppelin Company based on his experience working on the diesel engines which Daimler built for the Hindenburg.

Not yet a full member of the crew, Steeb's duties on the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937 consisted of taking instruction on the in-flight operations of the ship's engines. His duty station throughout the flight was in engine car #3, forward on the starboard side of the ship, and it was here that Steeb was stationed as the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst on the evening of May 6, 1937. With him in the engine car were mechanic Jonny Dörflein (who was operating the engine) and lead mechanic German Zettel. Engineering officer Eugen Schäuble was standing just outside the engine gondola on the catwalk leading to the ship's hull. Steeb was at the front of the car, manning the operating levers for the radiator cowlings and observing the operation of the engine as the ship made its landing approach. He did not, therefore, see any of the activity on the ground as the landing lines were dropped, nor did he particularly notice as the ship drew to practically a complete stop just short of the mooring circle. The whole affair was completely new to him, and it was clearly a lot for him to take in. He kept his eyes on Dörflein at the engine, and noted that the order came via the engine telegraph to reverse the engines shortly before the fire broke out.

Wilhelm Steeb's location at the time of the fire (diagram is top view of the ship.)

Steeb happened to be looking aft, out the rear of the engine car through the propeller, and saw a bright burst of flame near the stern of the airship. He felt the engine gondola jar slightly, and was aware of an odd hissing sound. He grabbed hold of a nearby strut, and wondered whether he ought to jump out of the ship immediately or whether he should wait. He thought it best to wait, and watched as Dörflein threw the stop lever to shut the engine down and fixed the brake. The engine chugged on for a few seconds, as these particular diesels tended to do, and Steeb nervously reached over and threw the stop lever again as the engine car hit the ground. Steeb jumped out of the car and began to run from the ship when he saw Schäuble fall to the ground in front of him. Steeb stopped and made sure that Schäuble was all right. Schäuble said that he was, got up, and the two of them continued to run. Before long, Steeb noticed that his back was getting hot, and ran his hand across his back to make sure his coverall wasn't on fire. He noticed that the back of his cap was burning, and he quickly yanked it off and threw it away as he hurried to safety.

Three of the men from engine gondola #3, German Zettel, Eugen Schäuble, and Wilhelm Steeb (shown in probably just about that order, left to right) stumble away from the Hindenburg as it settles to earth. Their engine car can be seen lying on the ground just to the right of them.

Steeb escaped the fire with minor injuries and stayed in the States long enough to testify before the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 14th, slightly over a week after the disaster. Wilhelm Steeb returned to Germany, along with the Hindenburg's surviving kitchen and steward staff, aboard the steamship Europa, arriving in port at Bremerhaven on May 22nd, 1937. With the Hindenburg gone and all flights having been suspended for her sister ship, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, Steeb returned to his job at Daimler-Benz.


Butch said...

I am George William Steeb.
My father, and grandfather were Both William Steebs. I had been told I had a relative who was part of the crew, but understood ( ater reading the book , some years. that he did not make it to the flight.
Therefore, this is very exciting / interesting!!
I hope to get more info regarding my german family heritage in the future
What a great start this has been
Thank you

Patrick Russell said...

Hi George,

Best of luck finding out more about your heritage! It can be a really fascinating process and it's well worth taking the time to do. (If you can swing the membership fee, can be a real help.)

I wish I had more information on Wilhelm Steeb to share with you. Most of what I know comes from his official Board of Inquiry testimony, and he doesn't seem to have kept in very close touch with his former crewmates as the years passed. It's possible that he died during the war.

I do have one or two other photos of him, however. If you are interested, please feel free to email me at

And if in your genealogy research you find out that he is a relative of yours, please let me know any additional info you may find on him!