I Survived: The Hindenburg Disaster, 1937

Chapter 3

Hugo’s plan worked.

Gertie’s blue eyes popped open as they stared out the window at the massive zeppelin. It sat on its airfield, tied down by thick white ropes. It reminded Hugo of a spectacular beast, with metal bones showing through silver skin.

But Gertie had a different idea.

“Oogo, it looks like a giant sausage!”

Hugo laughed; she had a point.

But that giant sausage happened to be the biggest airship ever built. At least a hundred crewmen scurried around it. The zeppelin was so huge that the men looked like flies buzzing around an elephant.

Hugo gave Gertie a little lesson about zeppelins. Some people called them airships or dirigibles, he explained, but he liked the word zeppelin. The word was actually the name of the brilliant man who figured out how to get these huge airships to fly, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

Hugo pointed out the little car that hung from the bottom of the zeppelin, right behind its nose. That was the control car, the Hindenburg’s cockpit, where the captain and his crew steered the ship. The passenger compartment was just behind, tucked into the ship’s belly.

Gertie turned to Hugo. “Where are its wings?”

“It doesn’t need them,” he explained. “It’s filled up with gas — a special kind of air — that makes it rise into the sky.”

“Like a balloon,” Gertie said happily.

“Yes,” Hugo said, even though that wasn’t really right. The Hindenburg’s sausage body was actually made of a very light metal. And then the metal frame was covered with a strong fabric. But Gertie was close enough.

Hugo pointed out the four powerful engines that were bolted to the Hindenburg’s body. Once the Hindenburg was in the air, the engines would rev up, and giant propellers would push the airship forward.

“Oogo, are we really going to fly?” Gertie asked.

“We are,” Hugo said, barely believing it himself.

Just three weeks before, they’d been thousands of miles away, in the East African country of Kenya. They’d moved there from New York City a year ago. Mom and Dad were science professors. They had always wanted to study the lions in Kenya’s Thika Valley. For years it was just a dream. And then eighteen months ago, Mom’s aunt Sylvie died, leaving Mom her life’s savings. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was more than enough to pay for a year or so in Kenya.

“It will be a family adventure,” Mom had said.

And what an adventure it had turned out to be.

From their front porch, they could watch herds of zebras and giraffes strolling through the high golden grass. At night, roars of lions echoed through the darkness.

“And good night to you!” Gertie would holler back at them.

Sure, at first Hugo missed his pals and his school and his beloved Yankees. But somehow he was never lonely. He had Gertie to chase after. There was the one-eared baboon that came to visit Hugo every day while he did his schoolwork on the porch. And then there was Panya, the ragged mutt that showed up at their door one day and refused to leave. He was a little guy—panya means mouse in the African language Swahili. But that mousy dog had the brave heart of a lion. He was Gertie and Hugo’s fiercest protector.

Hugo had seen more in this past year than most people see in their whole lives. He’d watched twenty-foot pythons climbing up trees and mother crocodiles carrying their babies in their wide-open jaws. He’d seen that one-eared baboon outsmart an eight-thousand-pound hippo.

But Hugo had never seen anything like the Hindenburg.

The zeppelin was known around the world. The Hindenburg was as famous as Hugo’s favorite Yankee, Lou Gehrig. But never had Hugo imagined that he’d have the chance to fly on a zeppelin. His New York pals would say he was the luckiest kid on the planet.

Hugo felt anything but lucky, though.

Because this trip on the Hindenburg wasn’t just another family adventure.

They were returning to New York City because Gert was very sick.

Her illness had struck six months ago. One day Gert was her joyful self. And the next morning she could barely move, and her body burned with fever.

Weeks passed, then months, and Gertie didn’t get better. The fever would disappear for a few weeks, but then it would come raging back. Twice her fever got so high she almost didn’t make it through the night. It turned out Gertie had a bad case of malaria, a disease that came from mosquitoes. Dad had gotten malaria, too. But it was more dangerous for little kids, and Gertie just couldn’t get well.

That’s why they had come to Germany two weeks ago, to see a famous expert in children’s diseases. He had no cure, but he told them about a team of doctors in New York City that had a new kind of medicine. As they were leaving his office, the doctor had pulled Dad aside, and Hugo overheard his whispered warning.

“Get your daughter back to New York as quickly as you can,” he’d warned. “You are running out of time.”

Now Hugo wrapped his arms a little tighter around his sister and swallowed the lump in his throat.

No, this journey on the Hindenburg wasn’t for excitement.

It was to save Gert’s life.