Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Otto and Elsa Ernst


Ages: Otto Ernst - 77
Elsa Ernst - 63

Residence: Hamburg, Germany

Mr. Ernst's occupation: Seed trader

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks – portside dining room

Otto Ernst: Died in hospital
Elsa Ernst: Survived

Otto and Elsa Ernst were a couple from Hamburg, Germany. Otto C. Ernst was part of a large seed company and nursery in Hamburg, Ernst & von Spreckelsen, which had been established back in 1849. He and his wife were longtime aviation enthusiasts, and since there was finally a reliable non-stop air service across the North Atlantic, they had decided to take a trip by air to the United States. They booked passage to New York on the
Hindenburg on its first North American flight of the 1937 season, which left Frankfurt on the evening of May 3rd. They planned to stay for a week and then return on the Hindenburg's second eastbound flight of the season on May 14th (and would have shared a second flight with fellow passenger Nelson Morris, who was also planning to return to Europe on the Hindenburg's May 14th flight.)

Fellow passenger Margaret Mather later remembered the Ernsts as "gentle old people who had been flying for 25 years and loved the air." The couple spent most of their time sitting quietly by the observation windows, contentedly watching the clouds and the ocean pass by beneath them.

Otto and Elsa Ernst's location in the portside dining room at the time of the fire.

When the Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst on the evening of May 6th, Mr. and Mrs. Ernst were in the portside dining room, sitting on one of the couches near the front-most observation window near stewards Wilhelm Balla and Max Henneberg, as well as fellow passenger Joseph Späh. Suddenly they felt the ship give a heavy shake, and Mrs. Ernst noticed a yellowish glow outside the windows. The stern of the ship then tilted down and the Ernsts were thrown from their seat and instinctively grabbed hold of Balla. The three of them tumbled to the floor and began sliding down toward the aft wall of the dining room. Once the floor leveled out again, the Ernsts sat where they'd fallen, dazed, until rescuers entered the wreckage of the dining room and led the couple down the ship's debarkation stairs to safety.

As the Ernsts emerged from the wreck steward Eugen Nunnenmacher, who had leapt from a window and had already begun helping passengers to safety, saw the Ernsts and immediately came over to help. Mr. Ernst was in shock and ready to collapse, so Nunnenmacher and a member of the ground crew both took hold of him to lend him support, and took them to a car that was headed for the air station's infirmary.

Two photos of Otto and Elsa Ernst after their escape, being assisted by steward Eugen Nunnenmacher (far right) and an unknown member of the civilian ground crew (far left.)

The Ernsts were taken to Paul Kimball Hospital in nearby Lakewood to recover from their injuries. Elsa Ernst did recover but Otto's condition gradually worsened due to trauma from his burns and from shock. He was given at least one transfusion, on May 14th, but it wasn't enough to save him. At 8:40 on the morning of May 15th, 1937, at which time he and his wife had thought they'd be enjoying a second Hindenburg flight over the ocean, Otto Ernst passed away.

Elsa Ernst brought Otto's body home to Germany a week later onboard the steamship Bremen.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I remember seeing that photo of Otto Ernst after he has escaped, looking at the camera with gritted teeth, on a documentary about the Hindenburg a number of years ago. There was something about his burned and bloodied skin and that facial expression that really distrubed me.

Patrick Russell said...

Yeah, I remember seeing that photo for the first time when I was about 11 or so, looking through my hometown library's bound editions of all the old Time Magazines. That thousand-yard-stare of Mr. Ernst's almost told me more than most of the books I'd read on the subject up to that point.

Anonymous said...

Hello ,
I have a picture from a car of the Hamburg located company of Ernst & von Spreckelsen .
Jurgen Klein

Patrick Russell said...

Hello Jurgen,

That's a fantastic photo! Thank you for sharing that with me. Do you have any more information about this photo?

Obviously, it is one of Ernst and von Spreckelsen's delivery trucks, but I am wondering about why it is decorated with flowers. A parade of some sort?

The .jpg file name mentions "30 Jahre" something, so it must be a celebration of some kind. (Although, as I understand it, Ernst and von Spreckelsen was founded in 1849, and that truck looks like it is from the late 1920s or early 1930s.)

A very interesting photo. Thanks again, Jurgen!


Jan Möllendorf said...

Hi Patrick,

I just found this blog. I am a great gradson of Otto and Elsa. I would reall be interested in further pictures and info about my great grandparents. Do you such info beyond this blog?
Best Jan

Patrick Russell said...

Hello Jan,

It's great to hear from you! I don't know that I have a lot of extra info about your grandparents, but I do have a little bit. I would be happy to share it with you.

Please email me at, and we will discuss this further.

Be well,

prof prem raj pushpakaran said...

prof premraj pushpakaran writes -- 2018 marks the 100th birth year of Ernst Otto Fischer!!!