As the image of the Challenger fireball exploded in vivid color on my television screen yesterday, I -- and one suspects, many others of my age group -- developed a sense of deja vu. The scene seemed, in many ways, eerily like the newsreels of the flash fire that destroyed the German dirigible Hindenburg at Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937.

But in the way we learned of and viewed it, there was a vast difference.

Yesterday, television watchers saw the disaster only moments after it happened. In 1937, the crash and blast occurred at 6:33 p.m., too late in Washington for the final editions of the old Evening Star and Daily News. Broadcast news then was sparse, so most Washingtonians probably learned of it from the next morning's Post or Herald.

Because the Hindenburg transoceanic flight was its first of 10 scheduled for the year, it was covered by radio -- one chilling version is in the classic Murrow record, "Hear It Now" -- and by newsreels, as well as by still-picture newspaper Wirephoto. There being no television, most of us saw the black-and-white film of the crash days or even weeks afterward.

Interest in the film was so great that the Washington Star carried a front-page story the day after the crash announcing that it could be seen that night at the Trans Lux, Capitol, Palace, Earle and Keith's theaters -- of which only one, the Earle, now the Warner, still exists, no longer a movie house.

The Hindenburg tragedy killed 36 persons, but the lone Washingtonian aboard survived. The Star's account listed him as Ferdinand Lammot Peter Belin Jr., 24, who later legally shortened his name to Peter Belin. A former Navy captain and resident of Georgetown, he died four years ago.