The cameraman who captured 'unforgettable' footage of the Hindenburg disaster

Thomas Craven kept his camera trained on the unfolding Hindenburg disaster, capturing highly valuable film footage that day.

Thomas Craven stood his ground when disaster struck on May 6, 1937

Airship or blimp attached to tower explodes in fiery gas conflagration
Thomas Craven was on the ground when the Hindenburg disaster unfolded. The cameraman captured film footage of the event that was subsequently seen in many newsreels. (The Associated Press)

Thomas Craven was, as they say, an eyewitness to history.

Yet 20 years after he captured film footage of the fiery Hindenburg disaster, the panel members on CBC's Front Page Challenge could not easily identify his connection to history.

"In May of 1937, in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Hindenburg exploded, bringing the era of trans-Atlantic zeppelin travel to an end," an announcer told viewers at home, as Craven's face was shown on the television broadcast on Sept. 2, 1957.

"Responsible for the unforgettable motion picture coverage of the disaster was cameraman Thomas Craven, tonight's second guest on Front Page Challenge."

The Hindenburg was a German-made airship that used highly flammable hydrogen to lift off the ground. There were 97 people aboard when it caught fire.

More than 30 people died in the infamous disaster, which occurred just a day after the zeppelin had been passing over Newfoundland.

Hard to place the cameraman

Trying to identify the Hindenburg disaster

3 years ago
Duration 2:59
In September 1957, the Front Page Challenge panel tries to guess the historic event that mystery guest Thomas Craven was tied to.

On Front Page Challenge, Craven nearly stumped the panel — though they were charged with guessing the historic event and not the name of the man connected to it.

Guest panellist Frank Trumpane, a journalist with the Toronto Telegram, quickly narrowed down the event to having taken place in a part of the United States, east of the Mississippi River.

Scott Young, fellow guest panellist and newspaper man and father of a soon-to-be-famous singer-songwriter, established the fact the Front Page Challenge crew was trying to identify a tragic event of some sort.

Then journalist Gordon Sinclair got to the fact it involved a fire. Actress Toby Robins got the date range down to the years 1925 to 1949.

But a second spin through the panel saw Sinclair correctly guess the incident in question.

After that, Craven took questions about the day he saw a literal disaster unfold.

No quit in Tom Craven

Thomas Craven recalls the Hindenburg disaster

3 years ago
Duration 2:00
In 1957, cameraman Thomas Craven talked to CBC's Front Page Challenge about his memories of the Hindenburg disaster.

"Tom, that was really a shocker — did it chill you to the point of wanting to quit news photography?" Sinclair asked the veteran cameraman.

Crossing his arms as he considered his answer, Craven explained that he "didn't have much time to think about quitting" in the moment.

"After that thing burned out, I reloaded my camera four more times and shot 800 more feet of film."

He recalled "the terrific wave of heat" that roared over him. Craven estimated he was about 200 feet away from the fire.

"I said 'Craven, this is your time to go,' but I took my eye out [of my viewfinder], and it was still at a safe distance and I stood my ground," he told the panel. "I don't know whether I was stupid or brave."

Craven said he hadn't even wanted to cover the Hindenburg landing in the first place.

"I was having a bit of feud with my assignment editor and as a rule, I cover sports," Craven said. "It was the week of the Kentucky Derby."

The New York Times ran a brief obituary on Craven when he died in 1973. It noted that his career eventually took him to the White House, where he helped cover five different administrations in Washington.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now