“Keep us, our God; for your ocean is so wide and our boat is so small.”
It was 35 years ago this month that the Edmund Fitzgerald sank with all hands on board.
This is my tribute.
The Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, at 2:15 p.m. on the afternoon of Sunday, November 9, 1975, under the command of Captain Ernest M. McSorley. It was en route to the steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit, Michigan, with a full cargo of taconite ore pellets.
The Fitzgerald joined a second freighter under the command of Captain Jesse B. "Bernie" Cooper, Arthur M. Anderson, destined for Gary, Indiana out of Two Harbors, Minnesota. The weather forecast was not unusual for November and the National Weather Service (NWS) predicted that the storm would pass just south of Lake Superior by 7:00 a.m on 10 November.
The SS Wilfred Sykes loaded opposite the Fitzgerald on at the Burlington Northern Dock #1 and departed at 4:15 p.m. about 2 hours behind the Fitzgerald. Captain Dudley J. Paquette of the Sykes predicted that a major storm would cross directly across Lake Superior instead of the NWS forecast that it would pass with less intensity to the south.
From the outset, Paquette chose a route that avoided the worst effects of the storm by using the protection of Lake Superior’s north shore. The crew of the Sykes followed the radio conversations between the Fitzgerald and Anderson during the first part of their trip and overheard their captains decide to take the regular Lake Carriers’ Association downbound route.
Paquette reported that on 10 November after 1:00 a.m., he overheard McSorley say that his ship was working so much that he had reduced his RPMs. Paquette said he was stunned to later hear McSorley, who was not known for turning aside or slowing down, state, “We’re going to try for some lee from Isle Royale. You’re walking away from us anyway … I can’t stay with you.”
The Fitzgerald followed the Anderson for the first 10 to 11 hours and then the faster Fitzgerald pulled ahead at about 3:00 a.m. on 10 November.Crossing Lake Superior at about 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph), the boats encountered a massive winter storm, reporting winds in excess of 50 knots (93 km/h; 58 mph) with gusts up to 86.9 knots (160.9 km/h; 100.0 mph) and waves as high as 35 feet (11 m). Visibility was poor due to heavy snow. The NWS upgraded the forecast to gale warnings. The freighters altered their courses northward, seeking shelter along the Canadian coast. Later, they would cross to Whitefish Bay to approach the locks. When the storm became intense, the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie were closed.
Early in the morning of Monday, 10 November, the NWS issued a storm warning (expected winds over 48-knot (89 km/h; 55 mph). By late in the afternoon sustained 50-knot (93 km/h; 58 mph) winds were observed across eastern Lake Superior. Anderson was struck by a 75-knot (139 km/h; 86 mph) hurricane-force gust.
At 3:30 p.m., Captain McSorley radioed the Anderson to report that she was taking on water and had top-side damage including that the Fitzgerald was suffering a list, and had lost two vent covers and some railings. Two of the Fitzgerald's six bilge pumps were running continuously to discharge shipped water.
At about 3:50 p.m., McSorley called the Anderson to report that his radar was not working and he asked the Anderson to keep them in sight while he checked his ship down so that the Anderson could close the gap between them. Fitzgerald was ahead of Anderson at the time, effectively blind; therefore, she slowed to come within 10 miles (16 km) range so she could receive radar guidance from the other ship.
For a time the Anderson directed the Fitzgerald toward the relative safety of Whitefish Bay. McSorley contacted the U.S. Coast Guard station in Grand Marais, Michigan after 4:00 pm and then hailed any ships in the Whitefish Point area to inquire if the Whitefish Point light and navigational radio beacon were operational. Captain Cedric Woodard of the Avafors answered that both the light and radio direction beacon were out at that moment.
Around 5:30 p.m., Woodward called the Fitzgerald again to report that the Whitefish point light was back on but not the radio beacon. When McSorley replied to the Avafors, he commented, "We're in a big sea. I've never seen anything like it in my life."
The last communication from the doomed ship came at approximately 7:10 p.m., when Anderson notified Fitzgerald of an upbound ship and asked how it was doing. McSorley reported, "We are holding our own." A few minutes later, it apparently sank; no distress signal was received. Ten minutes later Anderson could neither raise Fitzgerald by radio, nor detect it on radar.
Anderson's Captain Cooper first called the United States Coast Guard in Sault Ste. Marie at 7:39 p.m. on channel 16, the radio distress frequency. They instructed him to call back on channel 12 because they wanted to keep their emergency channel open and they were having difficulty with their communication systems, including antennas blown down by the storm. Cooper then called the upbound saltwater vessel Nanfri and was told that they could not pick up the Fitzgerald on their radar.
Cooper repeatedly attempted to raise the Coast Guard again but was not successful until 7:54 p.m. when they asked him to keep watch for a 16-foot outboard lost in the area. At 8:32 p.m., Cooper all but pleaded with the U. S. Coast Guard to take him seriously that the Fitzgerald had gone missing. Petty Officer Philip Branch would later testify, "I considered it serious, but at the time it was not urgent."
The Coast Guard lacked appropriate search-and-rescue vessels to respond to the Fitzgerald disaster. They asked the big commercial vessels to voluntarily join the search. The Coast Guard asked the Anderson to turn around and look for survivors. The initial search for survivors consisted of the Arthur M. Anderson, and a second freighter, SS William Clay Ford. The efforts of a third freighter, the Canadian vessel Hilda Marjanne, were foiled by the weather. The Coast Guard sent a buoy tender from Duluth, Minnesota, Woodrush, that was able to launch within two and a half hours, but took a day to arrive at the search area.
The Traverse City, Michigan Coast Guard station launched a HU-16 fixed wing search aircraft that arrived on the scene at 10:53 p.m. and a HH-52 helicopter with a 3.8-million-candlepower searchlight that arrived at 1:00 a.m. on 11 November. Canadian Coast Guard aircraft joined the three day search. The Ontario Provincial Police established a beach patrol all along the eastern shore of Lake Superior.
The search recovered debris, including lifeboats and rafts, but no survivors from the 29 man crew.
Although it is among the most well known and the largest vessel lost, the Fitzgerald is not alone on the bottom of the Great Lakes.
In the period between 1816 when the Invincible was lost to the sinking of the Fitzgerald in 1975, the Whitefish Point area has claimed at least 240 ships.
The day after the wreck, Mariners' Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times; once for each life lost.
The church continues to hold an annual memorial, reading the names of the crewmen and ringing the church bell. On November 12, 2006, two days after the 31st anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the church broadened its memorial ceremony to include the more than 6,000 lives lost on the Great Lakes. In 2006, the bell at Mariners' Church tolled eight times, not the usual 29: five times for the five Great Lakes, a sixth time for the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, a seventh for the St. Lawrence Seaway and an eighth time for military personnel whose lives were lost.
The ship's bell was recovered from the wreck on July 4, 1995. There was an uproar of controversy when Jeff Stevens, a maintenance worker of St. Ignace, refurbished the bell by stripping the protective coating applied by Michigan State University experts. The controversy continued when the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum tried to use the bell as a touring exhibition resulting in family members of the crew halting the effort by objecting that the bell was being used as a “traveling trophy”.
The bell is on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point near Paradise, Michigan. An anchor from Fitzgerald lost on an earlier trip was recovered from the Detroit River and is on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit, Michigan. Artifacts in the Steamship Valley Camp museum in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan include two lifeboats, photos, a movie of the Fitzgerald and commemorative models and paintings.
On every November 10 the Split Rock Lighthouse in Silver Bay, Minnesota emits a light in honor of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Coast Guard Cutter Woodrush was replaced by a brand new buoy tender in 2001, USCGC Maple. On its maiden voyage, the Maple visited the final resting place of the Fitzgerald and dropped the last Woodrush life ring down to the wreck.
On August 8, 2007, a Michigan family discovered a lone life saving ring on the Keweenaw Peninsula along a remote shore of Lake Superior that seemed to be from the Fitzgerald. It was thought to be a hoax because there are considerable differences in the markings of proven rings found at the wreck site. A later Associated Press article confirmed that the life ring was not from the Fitzgerald.
The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald
By Gordon Lightfoot
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they called "Gitche Gumee."
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
that good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
when the "Gales of November" came early.
The ship was the pride of the American side
coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
with a crew and good captain well seasoned,
concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
when they left fully loaded for Cleveland.
And later that night when the ship's bell rang,
could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
and a wave broke over the railing.
And ev'ry man knew, as the captain did too
'twas the witch of November come stealin'.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
when the Gales of November came slashin'.
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
in the face of a hurricane west wind.
When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin'.
"Fellas, it's too rough t'feed ya."
At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said,
(*2010 lyric change: At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said,)
"Fellas, it's bin good t'know ya!"
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
and the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when 'is lights went outta sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Does any one know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
if they'd put fifteen more miles behind 'er.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
they may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
of the wives and the sons and the daughters.
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
in the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams;
the islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
with the Gales of November remembered.
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
in the "Maritime Sailors' Cathedral."
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call "Gitche Gumee."
"Superior," they said, "never gives up her dead
when the gales of November come early!"