Sunday, January 4, 2009

Peter Belin


Age: 24

Residence: Washington DC

Occupation: Student

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks – portside dining room


Ferdinand Lammot "Peter" Belin Jr. was born on February 3rd, 1913 in Scranton, Pa. His father, Ferdinand Lammot Belin, Sr., was an international diplomat and Peter Belin therefore spent part of his boyhood in Istanbul and Peking, where his father held diplomatic posts. He was educated at schools in Switzerland and the United States and graduated from Yale University in 1936.

Peter Belin spent a year in Paris studying at the Sorbonne as well as L’Ecole des Sciences Politiques in preparation for a career of his own in the diplomatic services. In May of 1937, he was returning to the United States and booked passage on the airship Hindenburg on its first North American flight of the 1937 season. A licensed pilot himself, with a great deal of interest in aviation, Belin read up on Zeppelins in anticipation of his voyage.

As the Hindenburg flew over the North Atlantic, Belin and his fellow passengers enjoyed first-class amenities – including a combination bar and smoking room (a first for airship travel), and meals that rivaled those served in the best hotels in Europe - and also a surprisingly steady ride. Peter Belin would later recall how amazed he was at the almost utter silence of the ship, with the engines placed so far aft of the passenger decks that they were virtually inaudible but for a muted drone.

The last morning of the flight, May 6th, 1937, as the Hindenburg flew over New England, Belin stood at one of the passenger deck's long banks of observation windows with fellow traveler Margaret Mather, watching for his alma mater of Yale, hoping to see it from the air.

Peter Belin (far right) looks out one of the Hindenburg's observation windows. Lt. Claus Hinkelbein is at center, and Moritz Feibusch is at far left. Image is from home movies taken aboard the last flight by passenger Joseph Späh.

By the end of the trip that evening, as the Hindenburg hovered over the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ, Belin estimated that he'd taken over eighty photographs throughout the flight. He was commenting on this fact to Margaret Mather, with whom he was once more taking advantage of the ship's fantastic view, this time watching the Lakehurst ground crew connecting up the dirigible's landing lines. Belin and Miss Mather were standing at the center window of the portside observation deck watching the landing operations down below

Peter Belin's location in the portside dining room at the time of the fire.

Suddenly, they heard a muffled explosion from somewhere back toward the rear of the ship. Belin initially thought that it was another sounding of the ship's sonic altimeter, which had been used several times during the landing approach. Then the ship gave a sudden shake, and Miss Mather saw "a look of incredible consternation" cross Belin's face. The Hindenburg's tail quickly began to drop. The floor of the passenger decks tilted to a 45-degree angle, and Belin grabbed onto a post and held on as others standing near him, including Miss Mather, tumbled toward the aft wall of the dining room. Oddly enough, he noticed no flames entering the passenger decks yet, and looked to the nearby windows for a chance to escape.

Two of the ship's stewards, Eugen Nunnenmacher and Chief Steward Heinrich Kubis, had also managed to avoid being thrown aft, and now stood in front of Belin at the center observation window. Another passenger sat on the broad windowsill, and fell out through the window as the ship neared the ground. Kubis followed him up onto the sill, and hesitated as the ship rebounded back into the air on its forward landing wheel. Finally, as the ship's hull collapsed to the ground, Kubis jumped, followed immediately by Nunnenmacher. Belin was right behind them, but the window suddenly slammed shut and jammed. He quickly smashed through the celluloid pane. He was never completely sure how, but later thought that he'd probably used a chair.

Belin then dropped through the window while it was still about 15-20 feet above the ground, the ship's hull having rolled slightly to starboard as it settled to earth, leaving the portside windows suspended in the air. Belin landed in the sand, and scrambled away from the wreckage virtually unhurt. Only then did he notice that the entire ship was aflame. He then instinctively set about helping other survivors away from the wreck and to trucks that would take them to the air station's dispensary.

Meanwhile, Belin's parents had been onhand to greet him, and had watched in numb horror as the Hindenburg was suddenly consumed by fire before their eyes. It was actually some minutes before the shock wore off and they realized that their son had actually been onboard. They then began searching the airfield for him, checking the infirmary, and then waiting over at the press room in the big Zeppelin hangar for reports on survivors. In the confusion, Peter Belin's name never appeared on the growing list of survivors on the press room's blackboard. At last, after an hour or two, the Belins realized that Peter had probably been killed in the wreck and, aided by a family friend, made their way back to their car.

Peter, meanwhile, had realized that his parents would be looking for him, and began searching the airfield for them. He eventually headed over to the parking lot, figuring that it would be easiest to wait for them by their car. He arrived just as the car was pulling out of the parking lot, and he gave his distinctive whistle to try and flag them down. His stunned parents heard his whistle and turned to see Peter walking toward them.

Peter Belin went on to finish his education overseas and by the latter half of 1938 was secretary to Hugh R. Wilson, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. He followed this with a 20-year career in the Navy, eventually retiring as a Captain.

Commander Peter Belin, circa 1948

In 1939, Belin married Mary Elizabeth Dickson Cootes. Mary Cootes had been born on May 9, 1912, in Norfolk, VA and her father, Harry Newton Cootes, was a colonel in the U.S. Cavalry and had been commandant of Fort Myers from 1930 to 1933. Mary had been educated in Vienna, where her father was a military attache after the First World War, and went on to study at the Sorbonne in Paris and graduated cum laude from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Fluent in several languages, Mary Cootes worked as a translator for the U.S. State Department and served in that capacity at a number of international conferences, including the International Radio Commission at Lisbon, Spain in 1934 and again in Cairo, Egypt in 1938. She continued her translator duties after her marriage to Peter Belin, serving in the various countries in which he was stationed.

The Belins had four children, Beverly (who passed away in May of 1951,) Alan (who passed away in July of 1966,) Peter Graham (who passed away on September 7th, 1990), and Harry. After Captain Peter Belin retired from the Navy in 1960, he and his wife retired to the Belin family home, Evermay, in Georgetown. Belin's father, Ferdinand Lammot, Sr., had purchased Evermay in 1923, becoming the fifth owner of the home since it was built in 1801. The elder Belin, who led Georgetown's Colonian revival movement, restored the aging estate, and with his wife Francis, created Evermay's much-lauded gardens in 1931. Following in the footsteps of his father, Peter Belin became a leader in Georgetown historical preservation efforts, which resulted in the neighborhood being designated as a National Historic District. Evermay itself was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

In 1964, Peter Belin established the F. Lammot Belin Arts Scholarship, in memory of his father. The scholarship was endowed with funds provided by the Belin family and became a prestigious annual award as the years went by. Peter and Mary Belin were both prominent philanthropists, active in the Washington DC performing arts community as well as with the local Children's Hospital.

For the rest of his life Peter Belin rarely, if ever, spoke of his miraculous escape from the Hindenburg. He passed away on Feb 23rd, 1982 at age 69 of a liver ailment. The Citizens Association of Georgetown posthumously established the Peter Belin Award, given in recognition of service to the Georgetown community.

Mary Cootes Belin continued her philanthropic efforts after her husband's death, and passed away on January 10th, 1996.


Unknown said...

Amazing story. I have toured Evermay and saw the newspaper article in Belin family memoir case. The Belin family has quite a rare and interesting history!!

Patrick Russell said...

They certainly do! Glad you enjoyed the bio profile on Peter. As with the rest of the profiles here, I tried to make his as accurate as possible. He sure was one lucky young man back in '37.

David Brown said...

You have the name of one of the two surviving son's of Peter Belin wrong. His name was Graham, he was a NYC movie producer (Union City) and he died in about 1988 of AIDS.

Good article. I think Peter a graduate of Yale actually reported the story for the Yale newspaper. I was a friend of Graham's around that time.

EGallina said...

Actually, Graham's full name was Peter Graham Belin. He passed away on September 7, 1990 (b. 1950). We went to college together in Washington, DC.

Patrick Russell said...

Many thanks to the both of you. These are the kinds of details that I like to make sure I've got straight, but that I so often just don't have any way to verify until a family member or somebody close to the family gets in touch with me.

(David, I'll also have to see if I can track down any articles that Peter may have written for the Yale newspaper. It actually hadn't occurred to me that he might have done that, but it makes sense.)

Anonymous said...

Peter Belin was my grandfather. He did in fact go to Yale, but he did not write the article on the Hindeburg. It was his cousin who was the editor who actually wrote it. It was a big coup at the time because they beat all the major new outlets to the story. Wonderful write-up.

Patrick Russell said...

Great to hear from you. I'm glad my article on your grandfather looks okay to you. If there's anything that you feel could be more accurate, or anything that isn't in the article that you think ought to be in there, by all means please let me know.

In fact, I have a photocopy of a handwritten letter that your grandfather wrote to the Board of Inquiry describing his impressions of the disaster. I'd be more than happy to send you a copy if you'd like. Drop me a note at

Take care,

Anonymous said...

I knew his son, Graham, in New York during much of the mid-80's. I was only at Evermay once, for a Christmas party. I spent much of the dinner speaking with his mother.

It's been nearly 30 years and I think of that dinner frequently. It was a wonderful home and family.

Patrick Russell said...

That sounds like a fantastic memory to have. How grey life would be without those kinds of peak moments!

pdlagasse said...

Just discovered your excellent site and thought you might find this recent article in the Washington Post of interest:

It might perhaps contain additional details of value to your research.

Patrick Russell said...

Wow! That is an excellent article and yes, I do believe I'll be able to add a few details from it to my own article on Peter here. Thanks so much for passing that along to me.