Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Occupation: Engine mechanic
Location at time of fire: Engine gondola #3, starboard forward
Jonny Dörflein was one of the Hindenburg's engine mechanics. Born in Hamburg on August 2, 1910, he had flown with the Hindenburg as a trainee in early 1936, and was made a permanent member of the ship's staff of mechanics in August of 1936. He was aboard the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937, standing watch in engine gondola number 3, forward on the starboard side, along with fellow mechanic Willy Scheef, chief mechanic German Zettel, and mechanic trainee Wilhelm Steeb.
As the Hindenburg approached the landing field at Lakehurst, NJ on May 6th, 1937, Dörflein was in the crew's mess when the signal for landing stations was sounded. He went to his bunk, changed clothes, and then proceeded to his landing station in engine gondola #3. Zettel was already there, as was Steeb, the trainee. Dörflein climbed into the gondola with them, and took over on the engine throttle while Steeb observed him. Engineering officer Eugen Schäuble appeared at the doorway into the gondola shortly afterwards, but remained out on the catwalk between the engine car and the ship, observing the landing from there.
Dörflein, on orders from the control car, had given the engine one last burst at full ahead before reversing it to slow astern. Suddenly, everyone in the engine car was aware of "a shaking", and Dörflein heard "a very dull explosion" as the rear of the ship burst into flame. Schäuble shouted that the ship was on fire, and Dörflein turned around to see that the ship was ablaze above engine car #1 aft of them. Dörflein throttled down and fixed the brake on the engine as the stern of the ship dropped, with the propeller stopping just before the engine gondola hit the ground. Then Dörflein and the others leapt out and ran just before the framework of the ship collapsed all around the car.
Jonny Dörflein escaped the wreck virtually unscathed. He stayed in America long enough to testify before the Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 19th, and that same day he and fellow crew survivors Egon Schweikard, Eugen Schäuble, Max Zabel, Captain Walter Ziegler and Captain Anton Wittemann made a blimp flight as guests of the United States Navy. Dörflein then returned to Germany, along with a number of his fellow crew survivors, aboard the steamship Bremen a couple of days later.
Thanks to Mary Dörflein, Jonny Dörflein's cousin, for providing me with his birth date.