Questions for Larry Verstraete, author of Surviving the Hindenburg,
asked by students of The Hadley-Luzerne Central School
What inspired you to write this book?
I discovered this story while writing another book called Case Files: 40 Murders and Mysteries Solved by Science. The Hindenburg story didn’t suit the Case Files book, but I thought it would make a great book on its own. The Hindenburg went down in 32 seconds, yet more than 60 people survived, including the youngest crew member: Werner Franz. Pretty amazing! I really wanted to write about that.
Where did you find your information?
Fortunately, the Hindenburg disaster had been well documented. Reporters and film crews were at the landing site to record the Hindenburg’s maiden voyage to the United States so there were many first-hand accounts. I read books, watched YouTube clips and DVDs on the subject, and listened to interviews of Werner Franz where he described how he escaped the flaming zeppelin.
Did the cabin boy actually have a pocket watch?
Yes. In several interviews, Werner described the watch. He mentioned that it was a gift from his grandfather and that it was important enough to him that he went back to search the wreckage the day after the disaster to look for it.
Did you interview Werner to get your information?
Unfortunately, no, I wasn’t able to do that. Werner is well into his 90s now and no longer grants interviews, but from film footage and the interviews that Werner had given before, I felt that I knew him and his story well enough to tell it.
Have you been to the Zeppelin Museum?
Not yet. Maybe on some future trip to Germany I will.
Did you write any more books like this?
Not picture books about survival like Surviving the Hindenburg, but I’ve written other adventure style books for Scholastic. Here are a few titles: Life or Death: Surviving the Impossible (2014), At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times (2010); Survivors: True Death-Defying Escape (2003).
How old was the Hindenburg?
Just 2 years old at the time of the disaster. In 1936, it flew between Germany and South America, but 1937 was the first year it flew from across the Atlantic from Germany to the United States.
Is Werner Franz alive today?
He’s the only crew member still alive, and he was14 years old at the time of the Hindenburg disaster so that would make him roughly 91 now.
Why did they have a smoking room?
Seems strange, doesn’t it? I mean, a smoking room on an airship filled with explosive hydrogen? What were they thinking? At the time, smoking was a common habit and the builders of the Hindenburg wanted passengers to feel comfortable on the long journey. No one on the Hindenburg was allowed to carry matches, lighters or other incendiary devices. The smoking room on the lower deck was equipped with special electronic lighters that never left the room, and it was constructed with airlocks and pressure differentials that helped to safeguard it.
How would he find the hatch when it was all smoky?
The hatch was an opening that was used to load food and other supplies aboard the airship. Because Werner often helped the kitchen crew, he knew where the hatch was. Even though it was smoky and time was running out, Werner remembered its location. He was nearby, and by feeling his way through the smoke and being able to see just a little, he found it.
How long did it take you to write this book?
Beginning to end, it takes almost 2 years to produce a book like Surviving the Hindenburg. My part – research, writing and selling the manuscript to Sleeping Bear Press– took about 8 months.
Did you ever get writer’s block during the time you were writing?
Not with this story, but I have had times when my fingers have stalled on the keyboard and words freeze in my head. I accept that as part of the writing process and usually I just work on something else until my brain unlocks. Going for long walks or doing gym workouts are great diversions, too, and often a solution to my writing problem appears at times like this when I just relax and let it all go.
How hard was it to come up with the story?
Finding the Hindenburg story was fairly straightforward. Finding out exactly how to tell the story was more difficult. The Hindenburg was a large-scale event, but I wanted to make it more personal and tell it through one person’s experience – Werner’s. Told that way, most of the story happens inside the Hindenburg. That meant becoming familiar with the interior of the airship – where the ballast tanks, hatch and keel gangway were located; the position of the controls and gas bags; what routes Werner followed when he moved around the zeppelin etc. That kind of information was more challenging to find.
Did you have a certain reason to write this book?
I’m a history buff and a science guy who loves a good mystery. The Hindenburg story has all of these elements. It was a landmark event in history that changed the future of aviation, and the exact cause of the fire is still being argued. Was it lightning? Was there a rip in the fabric, static electricity along a guide wire, or was the fabric itself a factor? Lots of questions. Few answers. Interesting! I think by writing the book, I was dabbling in all of these areas and trying to satisfy my own curiosity.
How old is the watch Werner’s grandfather gave him?
I don’t know the answer to that question. My best guess is that the watch was a couple of years old at the time of the Hindenburg fire.