William Ernest Leuchtenberg was on his way back from a business trip in Germany. He was president of the Alpha-Lux company, which manufactured gas filter materials and gas purification systems. He lived in Larchmont, just north of New York City, and had recently been divorced from his wife Hannah (born Hannah Haustein in Germany in about 1879). They had two daughters, Helen Sophie (age 29) and Gertrude Louise (age 26).
Originally born in Duisburg, Germany on April 1, 1873, Leuchtenberg emigrated to the United States in December of 1899 when he was 26 years old. He became a naturalized US citizen on March 22nd, 1910. Census records from 1910 show that Leuchtenberg was, at that time, a merchant who dealt in imported beer. By the early 1920s, he had begun working for Alpha-Lux, and in 1925 filed for a patent for a cleaner process he had developed for removing hydrogen sulfide from coal or water gases using an iron oxide based purifier.
Leuchtenberg continued to maintain contacts in Germany, particularly business contacts. As he later told the Board of Inquiry investigating the Hindenburg crash, "The government in Berlin knows us [the Alpha-Lux Company] well, on account of the export orders we give them, foreign exchange; we only handle German goods." He made several extended business trips to Europe throughout the 1920s and 1930s, always taking steamships across the Atlantic. When he returned from one of these trips in May of 1937, he opted to book passage on Germany's new transatlantic Zeppelin, the Hindenburg.
Leuchtenberg evidently spent much of the flight drinking, and in fact this was mentioned (albeit without using Leuchtenberg's name) in Margaret Mather's article "I Was On the Hindenburg", published in the November, 1937 issue of Harper's Magazine. As the passengers stood by the observation windows and watched in amazement as the ship took off, Miss Mather writes:
"As I leaned out of an open window, I heard short, jerky exclamations of “Mein Gott! Mein Gott!” and saw near me a red-faced elderly man who had evidently been celebrating his departure with something stronger than Rhine wine, and whose excitement and enthusiasm found vent thus. His emotion was so intense that he seemed quite alone in it, it surrounded him like an aura, and isolated him; but suddenly he became aware of me and cried, “Herrlich, nicht wahr?” “I don’t speak German,” said I, thinking it more prudent to withdraw, but “My God! Are you an American?” he cried; “So am I!” and he threw an enraptured arm about me.
Throughout the voyage Leuchtenberg, who was Jewish, was reportedly seated by the stewards at a dinner table alone with the only other Jewish passenger aboard – Moritz Feibusch, a fancy goods importer from San Francisco.
As the Hindenburg approached Lakehurst to land on May 6th, Leuchtenberg was in the portside dining salon listening to Chief Steward Heinrich Kubis answer a question for the Doehner family, who were sitting near the aft-most observation windows on that side of the ship. Leuchtenberg was looking out a nearby window and noted that he could see along the hull of the ship toward the front and the back from where he was.
Suddenly Leuchtenberg heard an explosion and saw multicolored flames shooting out of the ship's hull aft of him. As the ship began to tilt aft, he saw a number of people tumbling along the floor toward the rear wall of the dining room. Leuchtenberg saw that couple of other people were walking into the dining room from the central cabin area at the time of the fire, and noted that they too ended up in a heap along with those who had slid down the inclined floor.
Leuchtenberg, as the ship began tilting further and further aft, flung himself against a railing in an attempt to keep from sliding aft with the others, and was heard to cry out "Es ist das Ende!!" He held on until the ship had settled to earth, but by that point the fire had burned its way into the dining room and Leuchtenberg, as he later told the Board of Inquiry, was "burned up entirely. My face, ears, nose, my lips, everything. My neck was burned, and my hands."
Having been looking in vain for his hand luggage, Leuchtenberg realized he needed to get out of the ship. He couldn't see to run, however, because his eyes were practically swollen shut from the burns on his face. He therefore just allowed himself to slide along the still-tilted floor until he reached a spot where he heard voices. One of the voices, a crew member, asked Leuchtenberg if he could jump out one of the observation windows, and Leuchtenberg replied that he couldn't. "I'm almost all in," he said. The crew member told him that he'd have to slide further along the floor as far as he could go.
Before he did so, however, Leuchtenberg took out his false teeth and put them in his pocket (a random little act that he later found quite amusing). The crew member then said he'd help Leuchtenberg find his baggage, to which Leuchtenberg replied "Let that go. I can't take care of it anyway." He then slid further along the floor and ended up near the door leading to the cabin hallways and the gangway stairs. A voice called out to him, "Crawl through here quickly. It's afire, but it won't burn you."
Leuchtenberg did so, and then another voice (which Leuchtenberg took to be that of an American sailor, since he spoke English) got hold of him and said "I can't hold you. I'm going to have to drop you."
"How high is it?" asked Leuchtenberg?
"About ten feet," came the reply. "Somebody else is downstairs to catch you." With that, the sailor called down to rescuers below, and dropped Leuchtenberg through the gangway hatch. Another man down below caught Leuchtenberg with an arm around his neck and broke his fall. Then Leuchtenberg was led away from the wreck. As Leuchtenberg was taken to the air station's dispensary, he later said, "I was absolutely irresponsible. I was delirious and I could not talk. The only thing I wanted was water."
Meanwhile, back in Larchmont, Leuchtenberg’s ex-wife and their daughter Helen were sitting at home when heard one of the first radio news flashes about the disaster. There was no word yet of survivors, and the two women immediately drove to Lakehurst in hopes that Leuchtenberg had survived. They arrived to find the naval air station a mass of confusion, crowded with hundreds of people – spectators, US Navy and Zeppelin Company personnel, news reporters and cameramen, rescue workers, firemen, doctors, nurses… and, like the Leuchtenbergs, friends and family members of those who had been aboard, searching for their loved ones.
They finally managed to find Leuchtenberg at the dispensary, badly injured but alive. He was taken to nearby Paul Kimball Hospital, and then transferred within a few days to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, where he slowly recovered from extensive burns. When Leuchtenberg was contacted by mail by Board of Inquiry chairman South Trimble nearly three weeks after the disaster on May 24th, Leuchtenberg's hands were still so badly burned that he had to have somebody write his response for him (and was obviously unable to sign the letter.) Later that week, on May 28th, members of the Board of Inquiry visited Lenox Hill Hospital to interview various passenger and crew survivors who were still there recovering. Leuchtenberg testified from his hospital bed.
It was the second time that year that a member of the Leuchtenberg family had survived a potentially fatal accident. On January 6th, Hannah and Helen had been driving along the Cross County Parkway. Helen was at the wheel, and as she went to exit the Parkway at North Columbus Avenue, she turned too sharply and her mother was thrown from the car and landed in the road. Fortunately, she only suffered cuts and bruises. Police took her to Mount Vernon Hospital where she was treated for a cut on her chin, another over her right eye and a split lip.
It is unclear what became of William Leuchtenberg after his narrow escape at Lakehurst. Steamship records show that he took an 18 day long Caribbean cruise on the Colombian Line’s steamship, the S.S. Haiti between November 11th and November 29th, 1937. It’s possible that he took this cruise in part to aid him in recovering from his injuries, but there is no way to know for certain. It is unknown how long Leuchtenberg lived after the Hindenburg disaster, as no records have yet surfaced showing when he died. His ex-wife Hannah lived until she was approximately 70, and passed away on February 25, 1950 in Hartsdale, NY. Helen Leuchtenberg, their older daughter, died in March of 1981 at the age of about 73. It’s unknown when Helen’s sister Gertrude passed, though as of 1950 she was Mrs. E.J. Lewis.