Monday, October 6, 2008

Kurt Bauer

Crew Member

Age: 30

Hometown: Buchschlag, Germany

Location at time of fire: Keel walkway, halfway between control car and bow

Occupation: Elevatorman


Kurt Bauer was one of three elevatormen who flew on the Hindenburg's last voyage, the other two being Ludwig Felber and Ernst Huchel. Originally hired by the DZR on November 1st, 1936, Bauer had previously been a merchant marine, and held captain's patent papers. Bauer was made an elevatorman immediately, and was likely being groomed for eventual promotion to watch officer status in anticipation of additional airships being built for the DZR in the coming years.

As an elevatorman, Bauer was obviously in charge of manning the elevator wheel when he was on watch, maintaining altitude and pitch, et cetera. In addition to this, however, he was also charged with monitoring the ship's water ballast in flight (and replenishing it while the ship was moored) and running the hydrogen inflation lines to top off the gas cells after each flight (and measuring the purity of the hydrogen as well.) He and his fellow elevatormen also had responsibilities as far as making sure the mooring gear was maintained and in place for landing.

Kurt Bauer at the elevator wheel of the Hindenburg
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

The Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937 was Kurt Bauer's fourth transatlantic flight, in addition to most of the shorter flights within Germany during the off-season. The flight itself was unremarkable for Bauer. On the last morning of the flight, he came on duty at 8:00 AM and as was customary for the elevatorman who took the 8:00 AM watch, Bauer checked the ship's supply of water ballast, estimating that the Hindenburg had between 19.6 and 19.8 tons of ballast aboard. His last watch of the flight was from 2:00 PM until 4:00 PM, but other than the fact that the air was quite bumpy during that time, nothing seemed even mildly out of the ordinary.

Bauer was on standby watch as the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst, and when the signal was sounded for landing stations, he went to his spot on the mooring shelf up in the bow. Once he arrived, he noticed that the mooring tackle was already prepared for landing. As Bauer watched the approach to the landing field through an observation window, fellow elevatorman Ludwig Felber unexpectedly climbed up onto the mooring shelf. Felber, recently promoted to elevatorman, had been on watch in the control car when Captain Albert Sammt, the watch officer on duty in the control car at that time, decided that the inclement weather was such that he preferred to put a more experienced man on the elevator wheel. Navigator Eduard Boetius was called over to take the wheel, and Felber was sent forward to take Bauer's place on the mooring shelf. Bauer, therefore, relinquished his landing station and proceeded back to the off-watch elevatorman's station along the keel above the control car.

Normally, when the ship was making the traditional "low" landing, with the ship being brought down to the ground and walked up to the mooring mast by the ground crew, Bauer's duty would have been to lower the spider lines on either side of the control car. After Bauer reached the drop point for the spider lines, though, it occurred to him that these ropes would not be used in the American-style "high" landing planned for this trip. He had little to do besides simply to find a nearby vantage point from which to watch the landing operations below.

Bauer walked a short distance back towards the bow and climbed onto a platform on the starboard side just above one of the two triangular ventilation hatches which flanked the keel walkway just forward of the captain's cabin. A few minutes later, six of his comrades passed by on their way to the bow, having been ordered forward so as to help trim the ship using their body weight. One of the men, a ship's cook named Alfred Grözinger, took a spot just across the keel walkway above the other ventilation hatch, and together they watched the two trail ropes from the bow drop to the ground below.

Kurt Bauer's location at the time of the fire.
(Hindenburg structural diagram courtesy of David Fowler)

As Bauer watched the ground crew working the port yaw line and saw the steel mooring cable beginning to descend from the nose cone, he suddenly heard a "cracking shock" which originated aft of his position. Almost immediately, he saw yellow flames over his head up in the axial walkway. Then the Hindenburg sank down by the stern, and Bauer felt the ship crashing to earth far behind him. Turning his attention back to the triangular vent hatch once again, he looked outside the ship and saw, along with burning fabric and bits of debris, a body falling from the bow. With the ship still tilted at a steep angle, Bauer managed to hold on to a girder and wait for the ship to descend, while several of the men who were standing forward of him, like the man whose body he'd just seen, simply chose to leap to their deaths rather than burn alive. He turned his head and looked aft and saw the main frame wiring of Ring 218 pushed through from aft towards the bow and break.

Realizing that his portion of the ship would be nearing the ground soon, Bauer watched for his opportunity to jump while the ship was still high enough that he could land and run to safety before the burning framework fell over him. He was surrounded by flames, which were particularly close above him as the fire blazed away up in the axial walkway and the gas cells overhead. Pieces of girder-work and other bits of wreckage were falling from above Bauer, and he assumed that these must be chunks of the axial girder melting and breaking loose in the fire. He noticed no heat, however, and he later attributed this remarkable bit of luck to the inrush of fresh, cool air being drawn up through the vent hatch over which he was standing. He felt the ship begin its final crash to the ground, and as the structure began to collapse around him he lowered himself through the triangular ventilation hatch below him, dropped to the sandy ground below, landed safely, and ran as fast as he could to get clear of the falling wreckage before it trapped him. As he ran off to starboard, he felt as though the ship was pursuing him. Bauer suddenly felt sharp pains in his chest, and as he heard the wreck finally collapse to the earth behind him, he fell at last to the ground.

Kurt Bauer (circled) hangs from the starboard air vent just forward of Ring 218.

Bauer drops to the ground as the Hindenburg's hull begins to rebound slightly back into the air.

Bauer runs to safety as the Hindenburg's framework begins to collapse to the ground.

Bauer rolled himself over on his back so that he could get a look at what was left of the ship. It was covered in flames and thick black smoke from end to end. He estimated that he was about 60 feet away from the remains of the ship's bow, and as he lay there several members of the landing crew came up to him and told him to stay lying where he was on the ground. He stayed there for some time, stunned. Suddenly Bauer saw his friend Eduard Boetius coming around the bow from the port side. Boetius, ignoring the landing crew, helped Bauer get to his feet, and together they returned to the portside of the ship where other crew survivors were gathering. As they passed by the bow, they saw rescuers carrying a dead body out of the wreck.

Miraculously, Kurt Bauer made it through the disaster without being seriously injured. Had Ludwig Felber not been ordered to take his position up on the mooring shelf, Bauer would have almost certainly been killed, as Felber was. In fact, other than Bauer, only two men survived out of the dozen stationed in the bow at the time of the fire: electrician Josef Leibrecht, who had been standing a short distance forward of Bauer, and Alfred Grözinger, the cook who was standing directly across the keel catwalk from Bauer. The other eight men stationed in the bow all died, either in the fire or in nearby hospitals over the next day or so.

Bauer testified before the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 19th, almost two weeks after the disaster, recounting his experience for investigators. In the course of his testimony the Board specifically asked him, among other things, to clarify his statement that he'd seen fire burning forward along the axial catwalk before the ship tilted aft, and he confirmed that this was precisely what he'd seen. A couple of days later, Bauer returned home to Germany onboard the steamship Bremen along with a group of fellow survivors.

Kurt Bauer served in the German military during WWII, and reportedly died during the parachute assault on Crete, on or about May 20, 1941.

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