Hometown: Walldorf, Germany
Occupation: Navigator (third officer)
Location at time of fire: Navigation room, control car
Max Zabel was one of four navigators on the Hindenburg's last flight, the others being Franz Herzog, Christian Nielsen, and Eduard Boetius. Zabel had previously sailed with the Hamburg-Amerika shipping line, starting out as an able seaman (AB) in about 1925 when he was in his late teens, rose through the ranks, and by late 1932 was second officer aboard the Vogtland. Zabel was hired by the Zeppelin Company in 1935 as a navigator. He had first flown on the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin before the Hindenburg was commissioned in 1936, and then transferred over to the new ship in time for the Hindenburg's maiden flight on March 4th, 1936. In all, Max Zabel made 45 flights aboard the two airships.
On the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937, which began on May 3rd, Zabel was serving not only as a navigator, but also in his new capacity as ship's postmaster, having taken over for helmsman Kurt Schönherr who had acted as the Hindenburg's postmaster during the 1936 season. Zabel not only looked after the bags of mail which were carried at Ring 203 above the control car, but he also handled in-flight mail sent by passengers and crew. Zabel's standby watch, therefore, tended to be taken up largely by his mail duties.
The flight proceeded without incident and on the final day, May 6th, as the ship cruised over the New Jersey shore waiting for the weather at Lakehurst to clear, Zabel was on standby watch and went to the crew's mess for dinner shortly after the ship passed over Asbury Park at approximately 6:00 PM.
About an hour later, the Hindenburg received clearance to land, and was approaching the air station at Lakehurst. Max Zabel reported to the navigation chart room in the center of the control car when the signal for landing stations was sounded. He was in charge of the forward landing wheel under the chart room, which he deployed using compressed air. He then used a detachable control wheel to keep the landing wheel and its housing turned into the wind. After he had gotten the landing wheel more or less into position, Zabel was watching the landing operations on the ground from one of the windows alongside the control car. He saw the two yaw ropes drop from the nose of the ship, one after the other, and the ground crew picking them up and hauling them off to be connected up to the mooring tackle near the mast. The port rope tightened noticeably as the wind changed and pushed the Hindenburg to starboard.
The control car shook suddenly with an extraordinary vibration as Zabel heard a muffled explosion. He looked aft and saw a reddish/yellowish reflection. Suddenly the stern of the ship dropped and Zabel braced himself against the rear wall of the navigation room. He saw the contents of the forward chart table, drawers, the log book, etc., fall to the floor as the ship tilted even more steeply. After a number of seconds, Zabel felt the bow of the ship finally beginning to descend. He saw fire everywhere above him, and climbed up onto the chart table to jump out of the main portside window in the navigation room, but he got his foot caught momentarily in one of the top drawers. Navigator Christian Nielsen was already at the window ahead of Zabel and and jumped as the ship neared the ground. Zabel felt the ship rebound on its landing wheel and leapt from the ship a split second after Captain Heinrich Bauer, who had dropped through a window next to the elevator wheel, just forward of Zabel. The two men ran out from under the wreckage as it descended for the second and final time.
Max Zabel (arrow) drops to the ground, having just jumped from the portside navigation room window in the control car.
Max Zabel escaped the wreck unhurt, and immediately ran aft to the passenger decks where he helped others to lead two men and two women out of the ruined dining salon. Once it was clear that they'd rescued everyone they could from the passenger decks, Zabel returned to the control car to make sure nobody was still in there. Seeing that the control car was indeed empty, Zabel then proceeded forward to the bow where he knew there had been nearly a dozen men stationed. He saw rescuers carrying the burning body of one of the men out of the bow, and couldn't tell who it had been. Zabel continued to check various parts of the ship for some time after that, but was unable to find anyone else to rescue.
As ship's postmaster, Zabel worked with the US Postal Service and the Zeppelin Company to account for the mail that had been aboard the Hindenburg when it burned. The Hindenburg had begun the flight with approximately 235 pounds of mail in eight separate mailbags, though one of those bags had been dropped by parachute over Cologne, Germany on the first night of the trip. Between the remaining seven bags of mail and the in-flight mail that various passengers and crew had posted during the voyage, however, there were still between 15,000 and 17,000 letters on the Hindenburg at the time of the fire. Ultimately, only 358 pieces of mail were recovered. Those that could be forwarded to their intended recipients were eventually sent on. However, Mr. F. W. von Meister, the representative for the Zeppelin Company in the United States, had lists of regular philatelic mail subscribers who had had mail being carried on the Hindenburg's last flight. To those whose mail could not be salvaged, Max Zabel signed copies of a form letter that had been written up, explaining that their mail had been lost in the fire.
Zabel testified before the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 19th, and then sailed for Germany slightly more than two weeks after the disaster along with other crew survivors onboard the steamship Bremen, finally arriving home approximately a week after that on May 28th.
After the war, Max Zabel worked in Hamburg for the German Hydrographical Institute.