40 years ago today, 29 men died on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
In terms of shipwrecks, 29 isn't much, but if one of those is your father, or spouse, or sibling, or friend... it can be everything.
Like the recent El Faro sinking, the overwhelming lesson of the Fitzgerald is simple: the forces of nature are bigger and stronger than can be overcome by technology and metallurgy. As long as people have been sailing the seas, some have been lost to storms. In our era of GPS, radar, and satellites we're lured into believing the sea is safe. And, compared to previous eras, it is.
But the power of a storm can be far beyond our best designs. Even if you take out the factor of human error, the sheer destruction caused by storms, tsunamis, and many other natural phenomena is overwhelming.
On December 17, 1944, during WW2, the U.S. Pacific fleet lost to a violent foe. 790 men were killed. Of the 86 ships present in Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet that day, 3 destroyers were sunk and 27 other ships (including massive battleships and aircraft carriers) suffered serious enough damage that they had to return to base for extensive repairs... And the Japanese never touched them.
All of that damage was inflicted by a typhoon. Admiral Nimitz, in his report on the disaster, wrote it "represented a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action."
|View from the carrier U.S.S. Cowpens as the storm approached.|
For many, their first (and only) knowledge of the Fitzgerald comes from the Gordon Lightfoot song. That's where I first learned of it, too. But there's more.
She was named after the CEO at the time of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, who commissioned and financed her construction. Built in 1958, she was (at the time) the biggest boat on the Great Lakes (yes, on the lake they're technically called boats), and remains the largest one ever lost there. She spent her entire career hauling ore between ports.
The lifespan of a Great Lakes freighter is generally twice that of their ocean-going counterparts. Spared the corrosive effects of saltwater, at 17 the Fitzgerald was still in overall good shape, though had the usual wear & tear all ships (and people) get with age. By 1975 she'd made 748 trips on the lakes, for a distance equivalent to circling the Earth 44 times. She set several records for ship size and loads carried.
She set out on November 9, 1975 from Superior, Wisconsin to Detroit, under the command of Ernest McSorley. A second freighter, the venerable Arthur M. Anderson (enroute to Gary, Indiana), joined her for a distance. The Anderson was skippered by Jesse Cooper.
As they sailed, a vicious November storm was brewing, though the initial predictions said it would pass south of the lake. As the day went on it moved northwards, going across the lake and taking the ships into its path.
As the afternoon of November 10 went on, they encountered winds averaging 50 mph (93 kph) with gusts up to 75 mph, and waves 35' (11m) high breaking over their decks. At 3:30 p.m. McSorley told Cooper the Fitzgerald had taken some damage and had a list. A few minutes later the U.S. Coast Guard issued an advisory for all ships to head for the nearest harbor due to the unexpected ferocity of the gale, and the 2 ships changed course for the nearby safety of Whitefish Bay.
At around 4:10 p.m. McSorley called Cooper to say his radar had been lost to the storm. In the blinding snow and rain, the Anderson closed the distance to the Fitzgerald, trying to act as the eyes for both of them with Cooper calling directions over to McSorley based on his radar plots.
Sometime around 5:30 McSorley told the coast guard he was "taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I have ever been in."
At 7:10 Cooper radioed McSorley about the position of a 3rd ship that was now on his radar, and asked him how the Fitzgerald was doing. McSorley answered "We are holding our own."
It was the last message ever received from the Fitzgerald. A few minutes later the Anderson's radar was unable to find her, and she didn't answer the radio.
Cooper, not believing at first the Fitzgerald had been lost so quickly, gave it a few minutes to see if she showed up again on the radar sweep. He contacted the other ship nearby to see if they had her on radar (they didn't). Finally, at 7:39, he radioed the Coast Guard to sound the first warning. Unfortunately, in the violent storm the Anderson was the nearest ship to make a rescue attempt. Against his better judgment, Cooper turned around.
It must have been terrifying, knowingly going back into a storm that had just destroyed a ship bigger and more modern than yours. One of the Anderson's crewmen, upon hearing what they were doing, scribbled a last letter to his family, sealed it in a bottle, and tossed it overboard. A second freighter, the William Clay Ford, bravely joined the search that fateful night.
But there was nothing to be found. In the next few hours both the American and Canadian Coast Guards sent ships and planes to the area. Only a few pieces of debris, and a badly damaged lifeboat, ever turned up.
As news spread, the families of 29 men (ages 21 to 63) began coming to terms with their losses. Reverend Richard Ingalls, Sr., of the Mariner's Church in Detroit, rang its bell 29 times, a tradition that continued until 2006 when the service was changed to remember all lost on the Great Lakes.
Mr. Edmund Fitzgerald's son, also named Edmund Fitzgerald, died in 2013. Like his father, he was involved in many endeavors through the Midwest, though is perhaps best remembered for bringing the Brewers baseball franchise to Milwaukee.
The Arthur M. Anderson, now 63 years old, continues to work on the Great Lakes today, 40 years since that fateful night her name became forever entwined with the Fitzgerald.
The Edmund Fitzgerald lies in 2 large pieces, the bow upright and the stern inverted, in 530 feet of water, oddly straddling the American-Canadian border. The cold freshwater has kept her well-preserved and her name is still clearly visible. She's been visited several times over the years by different expeditions, though they're tightly regulated by both governments out of respect for the grave site. The ship's bell was recovered in 1995, and is now in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. A replacement bell, with the names of all 29 crewmen engraved on it, was left with the ship.
In the wake of the disaster a number of regulations were changed regarding maintenance, safety equipment, weather forecasts, ship loading capacities, and annual inspections to address concerns the sinking raised. To date another large ship hasn't been lost on the lakes.
No matter what country you're reading this in, some aspect of your life depends on those who sail. Likely more than one. The clothes you're wearing, the food you eat, the computer or tablet or phone you're reading this on, the car you drive or the fuel it uses, the metals and construction materials in your home and office... may have came from somewhere else by ship.
Shipping is still, after 1000 years, one of the cheapest and most efficient ways to transport goods. All of us in our interconnected world depend on it. But never forget that for those who take the big boats to sea, sometimes the price is higher than we realize.