Werner Franz was born in Frankfurt on May 22 1922. As a 14 year-old he landed his job on the Hindenburg quite by chance. His brother worked in a hotel where the passengers gathered before boarding the airship, and when the Zeppelin Company asked the hotel for a boy to serve the officers, Werner was chosen. The experience was an eye-opener for a boy from a humble background. His job was to make beds, set tables, wash dishes and clean uniforms, but for a brief few months he saw the world in a way usually enjoyed only by the airship’s affluent passengers. As well as huge picture windows affording breathtaking views, the Hindenburg offered passengers gourmet German and French cuisine to the musical accompaniment of an aluminium baby grand piano.
Although Werner worked a 14-hour day serving the officers’ meals and attending to their cabins, he was allowed to take breaks during which he could enjoy the spectacular panorama below. He would often visit the mechanics who manned the engines or the riggers who worked at the top of the airship. On the day of the disaster, he climbed up to his favourite small window for a bird’s-eye view of New York City, gazing over Manhattan’s “ocean of buildings far and wide” as the Hindenburg circled overhead, waiting for local thunderstorms to abate at Lakehurst.
But as the fireball exploded, Franz was busy on the mess deck and not at his preferred observation point further forward, where other crewmen waiting to prepare the ship for landing were incinerated by flames bursting through the nose.
The day after the disaster, as a US Navy search team picked through the smoking wreckage, Werner Franz asked them to look for his pocket-watch, a present from his grandfather. It was found amid the debris, a mangled scrap of blackened metal but still ticking.
Although sabotage was initially suspected, no convincing evidence of a plot to destroy the airship was ever found. A build-up of static electricity that ignited a hydrogen leak is now believed to be a possible explanation for the disaster.
During the Second World War, Franz served as a radio operator and instructor in the Luftwaffe. After the war he worked as a precision engineer for the German postal service and was also a skating coach.
Werner Franz, who considered his few months’ service aboard the Hindenburg as the happiest time of his life, is survived by his wife, Annerose, and several children. At least one other survivor of the disaster, Werner Doehner, then eight years old and who was thrown out of the stricken airship by his mother, is thought to be still living.
Werner Franz, born May 22 1922, died August 13 2014