Friday, January 30, 2009

Fritz Deeg

Crew Member

Age: 24

Hometown: Friedrichshafen, Germany

Occupation: Cabin steward

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks, portside dining room.


Fritz Deeg was one of the Hindenburg's compliment of stewards. He was born in 1912 in Dornbirn, Vorarlberg, Austria, but his family moved to Friedrichshafen, Germany when he was a child. His father managed the Saalbau, an auditorium built by the Zeppelin Company. It served as a cafeteria, a theatre and a recreational center for the Zeppelin Company's employees. Deeg's father eventually moved to Bregenz, also in Voralberg, Austria, where he ran a hotel called the Europa. 

After he finished school, Fritz Deeg served an apprenticeship at the Buchhorner Hof hotel in Friedrichshafen. Following his apprenticeship, in 1934, he was hired by the Zeppelin Company to serve aboard the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin as a steward on the airship's new South American passenger route. He then transferred over to the new LZ-129 Hindenburg when she was commissioned in March of 1936, making every subsequent flight save the next to last trip of the 1936 season. Between 1934 and the end of the 1936 flight season, he crossed the ocean 40 times, covering approximately 750,000 km.

Fritz Deeg (in white jacket at left) and Severin Klein (in white jacket at right) serve guests in the Hindenburg's dining room. Dr. Hugo Eckener sits at the head of the table. (photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Fritz Deeg (left) serves Captain Ernst Lehmann (head of the table in bow tie and glasses) in the Hindenburg's dining room.

Deeg was aboard the Hindenburg's first North Atlantic flight of 1937. The voyage was relatively uneventful, and as Deeg chatted with the mechanics and the rest of the crew down in the crew's mess on B-deck as they took meals together throughout the flight, he got the same impression from the rest of them: all was running smoothly, aside from the stiff head-winds the ship was fighting its way through, and it was more or less a routine trip. Once the Hindenburg approached New York, flying along the bay, Deeg and another passenger watched a red Daily News plane fly alongside the ship for about 15 minutes or so. As the ship passed Long Island and approached Manhattan, other airplanes began flying close to the Hindenburg to take a look, with two or three flying above the ship and one of them tucking in below. Deeg had seen this happen on virtually every flight the ship had made over New York, and he assured nearby passengers that this was completely normal and there was nothing at all to worry about.

When the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst that evening at around 7:00 PM that evening, Deeg and several of the other stewards finished up piling the passengers' baggage at the head of the stairs on A-deck so that the Zeppelin Company's porters could haul it downstairs and out of the ship once the ship was moored, and then went to the observation windows to watch the landing. Deeg went over to the lounge on the starboard side of the ship, but so many of the passengers were there that he could not find a spot from which to watch the landing. He lingered for a minute or so, talking with Colonel Fritz Erdmann, a Luftwaffe officer who was aboard the ship as a passenger/observer. Erdmann's Luftwaffe comrade, Major Hans-Hugo Witt, walked over to speak with the colonel, and Deeg left the two of them to their conversation and walked over to the dining room on the port side of the ship.

There was much more room over there, with only about a dozen people at the windows, and so Deeg found himself a spot near the aft-most observation window. Fellow steward Severin Klein stood nearby, talking with the Doehner family as they watched the landing crew below. Deeg watched the landing ropes drop from the bow, and then a few minutes later he suddenly heard a detonation, looked back along the hull, and saw fire near the ship's stern. Shortly thereafter, he heard another detonation and felt a blast that shook the entire ship and seemed to come from the aft section.

Fritz Deeg's location in the passenger decks at the time of the fire.

The stern of the ship sank down immediately after that, and as every loose object in the dining room (and several people) tumbled aft along the inclined floor, Deeg held on to the open window frame to keep from being thrown against the rear wall himself. He looked for his chance to jump, and as the ship's bow finally fell to the ground and the wreckage rose up slightly into the air again as the ship rebounded off of its forward landing wheel, Klein, standing behind him, shouted to Deeg to jump. Deeg swung himself down through the window, hung on briefly to the window frame, and then dropped to the ground from a height of perhaps 20 feet or so. He landed in the sand, and proceeded to run until he was about 50 feet from the wreck.

Fritz Deeg (arrow) drops from one of the observation windows at the aft end of the dining room.

Once he was a safe distance from the fire, Deeg turned around and looked back and saw that the entire ship was ablaze. He then noticed that the wind was blowing the smoke and flames towards the starboard side of the wreckage, making it possible to re-enter the ship on the port side so as to locate and rescue at least some of the passengers. Deeg therefore returned to the ship, and as he approached the wreck, he saw that the two little Doehner boys were standing at the same window through which Deeg had jumped and which, due to the way the wreckage had landed, was still about 15 feet above the ground and still slowly settling. Deeg called to the boys, who were understandably afraid to jump. Their mother then dropped the older of the two, Walter, to Deeg, who caught the child by the hands and threw him clear of the fire. Deeg turned back to the window called to the second boy, Werner, and his mother pushed him out the window as well. Werner's hair had started to burn by the time he jumped, and Deeg patted out the fire and carried the boy a few meters away and handed him over to another rescuer.

Noticing that the wreckage seemed to have stopped settling, Deeg went to the smashed windows of B-deck, which were then at about ground level, and climbed in along with Captain Walter Ziegler, and navigators Eduard Boetius and Christian Nielsen. They climbed up to A-deck into the ruins of the dining room, and began leading the remaining passengers back down the stairs and out the B-deck windows. Mr. and Mrs. Otto Ernst were first, and Deeg and the others passed them through the windows to steward Eugen Nunnenmacher and one of the ground crew.

Gradually, the rest of the surviving passengers on the port side were led down the stairs and out of the ship, and Deeg then looked to the starboard side to see if he could help anyone over there. Unfortunately, that entire side of the passenger deck was burning, and one of the other rescuers told Deeg not to try to go in there. Moments later, the starboard lounge burst into even heavier flames, and Deeg knew it was hopeless. He picked up some bags and photographs scattered nearby on the floor and headed back downstairs. He climbed back out through the B-deck windows, and a few seconds later the rest of the passenger areas behind him were engulfed in flames.

The day after the fire, Deeg, along with fellow steward Wilhelm Balla and Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter, had the unenviable task of trying to identify bodies of those killed in the fire. Some of the bodies in the makeshift morgue in the northeast corner of Hangar #1 were so badly burnt that they were unable to identify them right away, or had to resort to identifying them based on their rings, gold teeth, etc.

Chief Engineer Rudolf Sauter (left, in dark uniform) and stewards Fritz Deeg (center) and Wilhelm Balla (right) leave Hangar One at Lakehurst after identifying the bodies of fire victims, on May 7th, 1937.


Fritz Deeg recounts his experiences during the Hindenburg's last flight for the U.S. Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry. Fellow steward Severin Klein sits in the background at left.

Deeg testified, mostly in English but partly through interpreter Karl Loerky, to the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 13th, exactly a week after the disaster. Deeg sailed to Germany two days later on May 15th onboard the steamship Europa, along with the other surviving stewards and members of the kitchen staff, arriving in Bremerhaven on May 22nd.

Fritz Deeg survived the war and settled in  Bregenz. He passed away in 1990 at the age of 78.

(Special thanks to Jim Kalafus at Gare Maritime for generously providing the photo of Fritz Deeg and Captain Lehmann in the Hindenburg's dining room.)


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Unknown said...

To head back into the burning ship to help rescue survivors is incredible. This guy sounds like a real hero.

Patrick Russell said...

He was indeed a hero, as were a number of his crewmates and many of the ground crew. It was fortunate that the fire took some minutes to consume the portside passenger decks, which allowed Deeg and the others time to lead a number of older passengers down the embarkation stairs so that they wouldn't have to jump from the observation windows. But yes, to escape almost certain death, and then to turn right around and climb back into the burning ship to help others was a truly brave and selfless act.