Belleville woman was one of the 36 killed in tragic 1937 Hindenburg disaster
This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.
Among the 35 passengers and one ground crew member who died on the ill-fated Hindenburg was Emma Pannes, a Belleville native. Her husband, who had a chance to jump off the airship and save himself, died because he went back into the inferno to get her out.
Emma Pannes' family, the Romeisers of Abend Street in Belleville, were no strangers to tragedy, even before the Hindenburg disaster.
Roland Romeiser, Pannes' brother, died unexpectedly at 17 from an apparent heart attack. Her sister, Petronella Romeiser, killed herself by jumping in front of a train.
Pannes was 56 when the Hindenburg crashed.
Nearly a thousand spectators gathered on May 6, 1937, at Lakehurst, New Jersey, to view the landing of the Hindenburg. They witnessed one of the most spectacular explosions in recorded history when the hydrogen-filled airship went up in flames in a matter of moments.
Passengers threw themselves out of the windows of the airship in an effort to survive. Some fled naked with their flesh melting off their bodies in a scene described by the national press as a "horrible nightmare."
The Hindenburg had successfully carried hundreds of passengers across the North Atlantic the year before it exploded. The disastrous 1937 trip from Hamburg, Germany, to New Jersey had been the first trans-Atlantic trip of the year.
The German-owned zeppelin was called "the pride of the German fleet." It was launched in Friedrichshafen, Germany, on March 4, 1936.
The airship was 804 feet long and 135 feet high. The swastikas of the Nazi party were proudly displayed on its rudders.
According to now-retired BND Answer Man Roger Schlueter, the airship was four times larger than a Goodyear blimp and 78 feet shorter than the Titanic.
And, like the Titanic, the name Hindenburg became synonymous with disaster.
The Romeiser house
Emily Smith, 31, and her husband moved to Belleville in September 2017. She said the former Romeiser home on Abend Street seemed perfect from the moment she saw it.
"I just absolutely fell in love with it," Smith said. After hearing a few of her new neighbors describe her new home as "the Romeiser house," she started researching the history of the family.
The results of Smith's extensive research and rehabilitation efforts on the historic Belleville house may be found on her blog, "The Brick and Maple." She has also joined the board of trustees of The Belleville Historical Society.
One of the surprises in the Romeiser family history that Smith discovered was Emma Pannes, who died on the Hindenburg.
Emma nee Romeiser Pannes was born to a prominent Belleville family, Peter and Elise Romeiser, on Sept. 14, 1880.
Her father, Peter Romeiser, founded the Romeiser Co. on East Main Street in Belleville.
"He was very progressive and forward thinking," Smith said.
Articles in the Belleville Daily Advocate, some from 1883, describe Peter Romeiser's cutting-edge innovations like installing electric lights in his store, an elevator and utilizing price tags.
"He was one of the first people to put fixed prices on his items so you didn’t go in and haggle," Smith said. "You went in and paid the price on the tag."
An early death and suicide
Roland Romeiser, Emma Pannes' brother, was the president of the Belleville High School Class of 1906, according to the Belleville News-Democrat.
He made front page news after dying suddenly of a heart attack at age 17, a few months after graduating from high school.
Smith said, "Roland was very popular in town. He was very musically inclined, and he raised money to help the high school buy a piano."
The BND reported, "The death of the young man is a great blow to the members of the Romeiser family, who are prostrated with grief."
The next day, Petronella Romeiser tried to kill herself by jumping through a closed third-story window because she was "grieved over the death of her brother," the BND reported.
A tree outside the home broke Petronella Romeiser's fall. The paper also recorded Emma Pannes' efforts to save her sister.
The BND reported, "Miss Romeiser did not open the window before she jumped. Miss Emma followed her to the room and grabbed her by the foot, but was too late to save her."
"She didn’t die when she jumped out the window but she was institutionalized in Batavia," Smith said.
According to Smith's research, Petronella Romeiser killed herself in 1908 "when she was out walking with her nurse aid and jumped in front of a train."
Tragic ending to love story
Emma Romeiser met John Pannes at the opera house in St. Louis.
"They both went to the opera on their own and ended up sitting next to each other," Smith said. "It’s just the perfect 'meet cute' you always see in the movies."
Emma married John Pannes, who would later become the New York manager of the Hamburg-America airship line, in a ceremony at her parents' home on Abend Street in Belleville on Aug. 17, 1912.
After living in St. Louis for a year, the couple relocated to a home in Long Island, New York.
They had three children together. One of the babies was born prematurely and died. Emma Pannes named him Roland in honor of her deceased brother.
John and Emma Pannes traveled extensively during their life together. According to the BND, they booked a ticket home on the Hindenburg after a month spent in Germany.
During the trip across the Atlantic, the Panneses befriended one of the passengers, Karl Otto Clemens. Clemens survived the explosion and shared John Pannes' last known moments.
Clemens and John Pannes were in the Hindenburg's lounge shortly after the series of explosions started. Clemens later recounted to reporters how he had urged John Pannes to jump out of the airship, as other passengers were doing.
"He told me that he would after he found his wife and then left to seek her," Clemens said. "I'm sure that if Mr. Pannes had followed me, he would have survived."
Smith said, "What I hate the most, though, was (the Pannes' son) was on the observation deck. He had gone to meet his parents and take them home."
Like the other horrified witnesses, "he saw all of this happening and couldn’t do anything," Smith said.
Flames and screams
"It's burst into flames! Oh, the humanity and all the passengers," said Herb Morrison of WLS Chicago while he was live on the radio watching the Hindenburg explode.
A United Press story, printed in the BND in 1937, reported: "The scene today was like a 'horrible nightmare.' Impossible to believe but made real by the screams of trapped victims."
Everything had proceeded according to plan until the airship was about 200 feet from the ground. They were so close to the conclusion of their journey, the watchers on the ground could see passengers in the ship's windows, waving.
Fire appeared on top of the ship. Silence descended. Later, witnesses said it was so quiet you could hear the flames burning.
Then "there was a terrific explosion and for miles around window panes shook and bodies came hurtling out of the ship, falling among the spectators and ground crew," the United Press reported.
In an Associated Press story by Chris Newmarker on the 70th anniversary of the Hindenburg explosion, the last known surviving passenger, Werner Doehner, described chairs falling across the dining room door. He was 8 at the time.
"Just instantly, the whole place was on fire," Doehner said. "My mother threw me out the window ... but I hit something and bounced back. She caught me and threw me the second time out."
He remembered his mother fracturing her pelvis when she jumped. But together, they survived the explosion.
Grotesque, piteous figures
The ground crew, who had gathered to pull the ropes and land the ship, ran in every direction as the flaming dirigible crashed down upon them.
As it hit the ground, the flames completely consumed the ship until only a metal skeleton was left smoldering in the ruins.
"Grostesque, piteous figures appeared from the flames," the United Press reported.
A nude man fled from the crash "as though possessed." The fire had consumed his clothing. More naked victims followed the fleeing man.
Witnesses later recalled, "There was a man whose hair had been burned off — a woman and a man bleeding profusely from face wounds — a man whose face was raw, whose facial flesh hung in shreds."
Rescue workers were forced to halt 70 feet away from the wreck because of the intense heat pouring out.
Capt. Ernest A. Lehmann, one of the pilots of the Hindenburg, was seen staggering away from the fire, covered in blood.
The United Press reported his confusion and shock: "'I can't understand how it happened,' Lehmann said shakily, addressing no one."
Lehmann later died of his injuries. Thirty-five passengers and one of the ground crew died in the inferno.
End of an era
In 1937, the world was a few years away from World War II, but the relationship between the United States and Nazi Germany was still cordial. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt sent Nazi leader Adolf Hitler a condolence note on the loss of the Hindenburg.
The message read: "I have just learned of the disaster to the Airship Hindenburg and offer you and the German people my deepest sympathy for the tragic loss of life which resulted from this unexpected and unhappy event."
The U.S. War Department decided to decommission all of its "lighter-than-air craft" in the days after the disaster. At that time, Scott Air Field was home to the TC-14, one of the largest airships in the country.
Five hundred and sixty men from the "lighter-than-air" division were transferred from Scott Field to a "heavier-than-air" unit. The age of the zeppelins ended.
Emily Smith, now the proud owner of the Romeiser home, plans to continue her research of the family by tracking down any living descendants. Interested readers can follow the freelance writer's progress on her blog.
"For Emma to be a part of all of this and then still die in the Hindenburg, I don’t know how one family can go through so much," Smith said. "It just hurts my heart."
The Associated Press and former BND reporter Roger Schlueter contributed to this article.