Friday, January 16, 2009

Egon Schweikard

Crew Member

Age: 36

Hometown: Frankfurt, Germany

Occupation: Radio operator

Location at time of fire: Radio room, above control car


Egon Schweikard was one of four radio operators on the Hindenburg's final flight, the other three being Herbert Dowe, Franz Eichelmann, and Chief Radio Operator Willy Speck. Schweikard had been a radio operator since August of 1929, having worked for the sea traffic division of DEBEG ("Deutsche Betriebsgesellschaft für drahtlose Telegraphie", the German company which provided wireless equipment for seagoing vessels as well as airships) and had worked on nearly all steamship lines before being hired by the Zeppelin Company as a radio operator on January 15th, 1936.

Schweikard was aboard the Hindenburg on her first North American flight of the 1937 season, and noticed nothing unusual throughout the trip. He began his last watch of the flight at noon on May 6th, and approximately an hour later at 1:00 direct radio communication with Hamburg was ended for the duration of the flight. Any subsequent updates sent to Germany would have to go via one of the American radio stations, either McKay or RCA. He went off watch at 4:00 on the afternoon, but returned to the radio room a few hours later when the signal for landing stations was sounded shortly after 7:00 PM. After Herbert Dowe, the radio operator on watch at the time, sent one last message to Lakehurst to advise them that the ship would be ceasing transmissions from that point onward, Chief Speck ordered the two men to shut off the transmitters and the generators, and to haul in the antennae. Speck then went down to the control car below to watch the landing maneuver, and Schweikard and Dowe carried out Speck's order, and then watched the ground crew through the small window in the floor of the radio room.

Egon Schweikard's location at the time of the fire.

Suddenly, Schweikard heard a dull, thudding detonation and felt a strong shock run through the ship. As the ship tilted aft, Dowe shouted "Raus!" and Schweikard immediately made his way out of the radio room and to the ladder leading down to the control car. By the time he had descended the ladder and looked out the windows of the control car, Schweikard could see that the entire front portion of the ship was on fire. He kicked the glass out of one of the rear windows of the control car, climbed through, and dropped about 10 feet to the ground, at which point he began running off towards starboard. He saw several men ahead of him disappearing into the fire and realized that his path there was cut off by burning wreckage.

Schweikard returned to the control car, where Captain Anton Wittemann was also taking shelter, and threw himself down to the ground. He remained there briefly until he saw an opening in the flames off to port, and he stumbled clear of the wreck with only minor injuries. Outside, he met mechanic Eugen Bentele and helmsman Kurt Schönherr, and the three of them were led away by members of the ground crew.

He then headed over toward the DZR office in the airplane hangar next to the huge Zeppelin hangar, where a number of crew survivors were gathering. Once Schweikard made it to the hangar, WLS radio reporter Herb Morrison stopped him for a brief word, which Morrison shortly thereafter recounted for the recording that he and Charlie Nehlsen were making of the event.

Schweikard testified to the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry into the Hindenburg disaster on May 19th, giving his account of the crash as well as explaining to the Board about the various radio equipment that had been onboard the ship and the ways in which that equipment had been used. The same day that he testified to the Board, Schweikard, along with several other fellow Hindenburg crew survivors, also took a flight, courtesy of the US Navy, on one of the blimps the Navy kept at Lakehurst. Schweikard sailed home to Germany onboard the steamship Bremen slightly more than two weeks after the disaster, along with Dr. Durr, Captain Wittemann, and a number of other mechanics and command crew. He flew again as a radio officer the next year on the maiden flight of the Hindenburg’s sister ship, the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin.

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