18 years before the Hindenburg, a blimp disaster hit the Loop

Seventy-five years ago this week, the Tribune delivered horrific news under a screaming banner headline, "ZEP BLOWS UP; KILLS 35." The zeppelin was the Hindenburg, and the accompanying remarkable photographs — plus the famous radio account — would sear the disaster in the nation's collective memory.

For many in Chicago, the news and images were all too familiar, bringing back memories of the city's own tragic blimp accident.

Nearly 20 years earlier, on July 21, 1919, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.'s Wingfoot Express airship was putting on a show. For most of the day, it had cruised around the downtown area as its crew put it through its paces on two training runs. the powerful hum of its engines and a serene shadow were the only indicators of its passage as it flew from the South Side to Grant Park and as far north as Diversey Parkway The third run, with five people aboard, including a newspaper photographer, aimed for the Loop to get fresh pictures of the city's multiplying skyscrapers.

Cruising at about 1,200 feet, the Wingfoot drew plenty of attention from people in those same office buildings, seeing a welcome distraction at the end of a long Monday. Hundreds more were on the streets below as rush hour neared.

The first indication of trouble was a small spurt of flame at the front of the 186-foot-long blimp, according to one man watching from the Continental and Commercial Bank Building. "The flame spread in a streak in unbelievable time."

Another man witnessed the disaster from the 12th floor of the Lees Building, 19 S. Wells St. He saw the blimp's passengers jump from the gondola. He reported seeing four parachutes open, but one man's chute getting tangled in the now-plummeting blimp.

Shortly before 5 p.m., workers at the Illinois Trust & Savings Bank building were finishing up for the day. The bank had closed to customers earlier, but nearly 150 bookkeepers and clerks were still working at their desks underneath the vaulted skylight of the 21/2 story building at the northeast corner of Jackson Boulevard and LaSalle Street. "A shadow passed over the marble rotunda," the Tribune reported, and more than one bank employee would report seeing a flash of light that they attributed to a photographer's flashbulb. Then a terrifying crash followed. Here's how the Tribune described it:

"It seemed, according to survivors, as if the entire bank was on fire. Breaking through the iron supports holding the glass overhead, the fuselage of the blimp, with two heavy rotary engines and two gasoline tanks, smashed to the floor.

"Instantly the tanks exploded, scattering a wave of flaming gasoline over the workers for a radius of 50 feet. A panic ensued."

Making matters worse, the area beneath the skylight was caged for security reasons and had just two exits. "Men and girls with clothing flaming fought their way through the exits," the Tribune reported.

One bank employee ran out of his office and was immediately knocked off his feet by an explosion. "I got up and some one ran into me, screaming, 'O, my God, it's raining hell!' The screams were indescribable."

Thirteen people died — 11 in the bank and two blimp passengers — and 26 were injured. The horror of unexpected death raining from the sky prompted immediate action by the City Council, which adopted a resolution just six hours later to regulate flying over the city. The original measure, introduced by Ald. Anton Cermak, had called for the outright ban, but cooler heads prevailed.

The state's attorney also wasted no time, launching an investigation and arresting 17 Goodyear employees, including the blimp's pilot, whose parachute deposited him unharmed on top of a building.

And then — nothing. Nobody was charged. Nobody was tried. No definitive cause was reported, though the Tribune ran one story attributing the explosion to a static spark lighting the highly flammable hydrogen gas. The second-day coverage on Page 1 was a mere three paragraphs. No doubt, a big factor was that the disaster was overtaken by bigger news: The race riots that already were embroiling Washington, D.C., would turn Chicago into a war zone within the week.

Still, the city seemed eager to put this behind it, as if recognizing that progress didn't come without a price. Notably in that vein, Illinois Trust & Savings was open for business the next day. The bank ran an advertisement in the Tribune that read, in part, "A balloon ... fell through the skylight ... injuring and killing several of our employees. The tellers' cages and other facilities were not affected. The physical damage will be repaired so that the bank will be able to transact business today."

Editor's note: Thanks to Kevin and Gina Mulligan, of Rockford; Craig Shparago, of Wilmette; and Daniel Derdzinski, of Chicago, for suggesting these Flashbacks.

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