Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Herbert J. O'Laughlin


Age: 28

Residence: River Forest, IL

Occupation: President of Consumers Coal and Coke Co. of Elgin, IL

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks - portside dining salon


Herbert James O'Laughlin, born November 22nd, 1908 in Oak Park, IL, to Matthew and Jennie O’Laughlin, was president of the Consumer's Coal and Coke Company of Elgin, a firm controlled by his family. O'Laughlin was returning from three weeks vacation in Europe, having left his family home on Bonnie Brae Road in River Forest, IL on April 11th with a stop at the home of his friends, Mr. and Mrs. John Shea of Maplewood, NJ. One of four Chicagoans onboard the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937, O'Laughlin was looking forward to getting home to the United States where, he told fellow passenger Margaret Mather "you can drink plain water and there’s no bother about passports.”

O'Laughlin location Herbert O'Laughlin's approximate location in the portside dining room at the time of the fire.

As the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst, O'Laughlin was standing with other passengers at the portside observation windows. He watched the landing crew working below them to moor the ship, and he put on his overcoat in preparation for disembarking, which he assumed was only a few minutes away.

Suddenly, O’Laughlin felt a slight tremor run through the airship, and immediately afterward he heard the explosion. “Suddenly there was a blinding flash,” he would later recall. “The ship upended and plunged downward with sickening speed.”

He remembered little of his escape, other than the fact that he jumped. “It happened so damned fast,” he later remarked. He recalled seeing passengers flung about as the passenger decks tilted, and then jumped out an observation window when it was about 15 feet above the ground. The next thing he knew, he was running into the giant airship hangar asking for a telephone to phone his mother at the family home in River Forest. The reporters crowded around the nearest telephone quickly realized that he was a survivor of the fire because his face was stained black from smoke. They immediately put him at the head of the line to use the phone, and when the operator learned that he was a survivor of the disaster, she offered to put his call through for free.

Herbert O'Laughlin just prior to boarding an American Airlines DC-3
for Newark, NJ less than an hour after the crash. The strap across his suit
jacket is the camera case he had with him when he jumped from the ship.

Shortly afterward, he walked over to the heavier-than-air hangar next to the airship hangar where he was interviewed off-microphone by WLS radio commentator Herb Morrison, who then added the news of O'Laughlin's escape to the recording he was making. Not long after that, O'Laughlin boarded an American Airlines flight to Newark, where several people aboard the plane were going to pick up medical supplies before returning to Lakehurst. O’Laughlin was treated for slight burns on his face and hands at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, before being discharged and taken by his friends the Sheas to Orange Memorial Hospital where he recuperated overnight. He then stayed with the Sheas at their Maplewood home before returning to the Chicago on Sunday, May 9th. He arrived back home in River Forest just in time for Mother’s Day.

O’Laughlin returned to work at the Consumer Coal and Coke Company, and later served on the board of directors for the Oak Park National Bank, which had also been founded by his family. He married Ruth Goelitz, and they had two sons, William and James. By 1960, O’Laughlin was working as an investment broker, and he and his family still lived in River Forest, IL.

On April 3rd, 1961, the day after Easter, Herbert O’Laughlin left for another trip to Europe. He visited Lisbon and Madrid before heading on to Frankfurt, where he’d boarded the Hindenburg almost 24 years before. While in Frankfurt, in April 12th, O’Laughlin suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died in the ambulance en route to the hospital. He was 52 years old.

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