Monday, May 7

Whatever happened to Herbert Morrison?

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster. Herbert Morrison was the radio reporter at the scene of the accident, the person who described the tragedy as it unfolded.

Morrison's emotional description of events impressed me as a child, perhaps it even haunted me me a little. The horror in his voice, the incredulity. Thinking back on Morrison's reporting of the tragedy, yesterday and today, I'm struck by the fact that I have -- well, had -- no knowledge of what happened to him afterward. I needed to remedy that so today I'm dedicating this blog post to the late Herbert Morrison.

One for the record books
 There's a lot I didn't know about radio reporting back in the day. Everything had to be live so the very existence of Morrison's recording is somewhat unusual. In fact, when portions of Morrison's description of the disaster were "rebroadcast nationally by the NBC Radio network the next day ... it was the first time recordings of a news event were ever broadcast, and also the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast. (Wikipedia, Herbert Morrison)"

Morrison's life before and after the tragedy
Before his historic reporting of the Hindenburg tragedy, he was an announcer for musical programs for WLS Radio and he had recently reported on several floods. A year later he left WLS "to work for the Mutual Broadcasting System and that network's New York flagship station, WOR.
Morrison served in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, and later became the first news director at WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the 1975 motion picture The Hindenburg, Herbert Morrison was employed as a technical adviser. He was portrayed by actor Greg Mullavy in the movie, but his recording was used in the film. He was also sent across the country by Universal Studios to promote the film.
- Wikipedia, Herbert Morrison
Morrison's audio recording of the Hindenburg tragedy
Here is a transcription of Morrison's audio recording of the tragedy, courtesy of Morrison's page on Wikipedia.
It's practically standing still now. They've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship, and they've been taken a hold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again; it's—the rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just, just enough to keep it from — It burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it's falling, it's crashing! Watch it! Watch it, folks! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get this, Charlie! Get this, Charlie! It's fire—and it's crashing! It's crashing terrible! Oh, my, get out of the way, please! It's burning and bursting into flames, and the—and it's falling on the mooring-mast and all the folks agree that this is terrible, this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. [Indeciperable word(s)] It's–it's–it's the flames, [indecipherable, possibly the word "climbing"] oh, four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it ... it's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke, and it's flames now ... and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring-mast. Oh, the humanity and all the passengers screaming around here. I told you, I can't even talk to people whose friends are on there. Ah! It's–it's–it's–it's ... o–ohhh! I–I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it's just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk, and the screaming. Lady, I–I'm sorry. Honest: I–I can hardly breathe. I–I'm going to step inside where I cannot see it. Charlie, that's terrible. Ah, ah—I can't. I, listen, folks, I–I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed.
Here is Morrison's audio file overlaid on newsreel footage taken at the same time.

Apparently the original recording distorted Morrison's speech -- it ran about 3% too fast. I believe the file I've embedded, above, has been corrected for this. To see your yourself, you can compare this version with the version embedded in the Wikipedia article on Morrison.

In putting together this post I've drawn heavily from the Wikipedia article on Herbert Morrison, but I've only touched on a fraction of the material included there. It's well worth the read.

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