Edmund Fitzgerald sinking still leads Great Lakes lore
Maybe it's because no one knows for sure exactly what happened. Maybe it's because so many lives were lost in an instant. Or maybe it's because of the song.
It was 35 years ago tonight when the Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior. A generation has passed. Memories fade. But interest in the "Fitz" still is keen.
"It's not our biggest exhibit, but it's the one we absolutely have to keep up," said Thom Holden, director of the Lake Superior Maritime Museum in Duluth's Canal Park. "We can't touch the Fitz exhibit without people getting upset about it. We still get a lot of questions about it."
But most of the people asking the questions are older now.
"When I first got here in 1977, it was the young school children who knew the most, who were most interested, because it was recent history for them. ... Now, even the parents of the children who come through weren't born when it happened," Holden said. "For the kids now, it's like the Titanic. It's ancient history. But it's still one of our most asked-about ships or events."
Holden said the haunting 1976 Gordon Lightfoot ballad about the wreck is a big part of the intrigue.
"I got a call not too long ago from someone in California wondering if the song was about a real shipwreck or just an interesting folk song he made up," Holden said.
But it's also the human drama surrounding the wreck, song or no song. There have been thousands of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, but this is the last one in which lives were lost.
Worst seas ever
The 729-foot freighter left Superior on Nov. 9 with a full load of 26,000 tons of Minnesota-made taconite iron ore pellets just before a huge storm engulfed the region. The ore carrier was on its way to a steel mill at Zug Island near Detroit but sunk in waves that some call the largest they'd ever seen on Lake Superior. All 29 crew members on board, including nine from the Northland, perished.
Late on the afternoon of the 10th, the captain of the Fitzgerald, Ernest M. McSorely, made radio contact with another ship, the Avafor, and reported that the Fitz was listing badly to one side, had lost both radars, and was taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the "worst seas" he had ever been in. Northwest winds were blowing near 60 mph with higher gusts.
At about 4 p.m. an estimated 75-knot (86 mph) hurricane-force northwest wind gust struck the ore carrier Arthur M. Anderson. At 7 p.m. the Anderson, trailing the Fitzgerald by about 10 miles, was struck by two waves estimated at 25 feet or higher.
The last radio contact from the Fitzgerald to the Anderson was: "We are holding our own," about 7:10 that night. But the Fitz's lights faded from sight in a snow squall and then disappeared from the Anderson's radar screen minutes later. No distress signal was sent.
The wreck was found in two pieces 530 feet below the surface just 17 miles outside Whitefish Point and the relative safety and calmer waters of Whitefish Bay.
No consensus, lots of interest
A Coast Guard investigation ruled the probable cause of the sinking was that the deck hatches failed and water filled the ore-filled cargo holds. This report suggests that the Fitzgerald was taking on water due to earlier damage from the storm and that around 7:15 p.m. it plunged headfirst into a large wave and sank abruptly.
But findings by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Great Lakes Carriers Association weren't as sure.
Another theory says the ship, unknown to the crew, bottomed out in huge waves on a shoal near Caribou Island, gashing the hull and causing buckling on deck. Other theories include structural deficiencies, overloading, hatches that weren't properly secured, or just freak wind and wave conditions that doomed the ship.
"There's still huge interest, so much attention, because the mystery remains. There is no smoking gun," said Tom Farnquist, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society at Whitefish Point, Mich. "The more of the old ship captains you talk to, the more the theory that they bottomed-out on Caribou shoal makes sense. ... But I've heard everything from freak waves to structural problems to UFOs."
Farnquist and Holden said the wreck of the Fitzgerald has become a teaching tool for Great Lakes maritime history, "even though it's only one of 6,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes," Farnquist noted. "And even though they are just 29 of the thousands of people who have lost their lives on the lakes."
The men who died in the wreck ranged in age from 21 to 63 and came from seven states. The church bell did chime at the Maritime Church in Detroit for the victims, as Lightfoot immortalized in song, but they also are remembered at Whitefish Point, where surviving family and friends gather each year on the anniversary.
Officials from several marine agencies and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will join at least six surviving relatives of the crew today for the 7 p.m. memorial service, when the actual bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald will ring 29 times. The bell was recovered from the wreckage in a 1995 diving expedition and is the centerpiece of a memorial exhibit.
"We're going to keep doing this as long as there's interest," Farnquist said of the ceremony. "And that doesn't seem to be going away."