Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Legend Lives On

On June 7, 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald was launched. At 729 feet long, the Fitzgerald becomes the largest ship to sail the Great Lakes, a title she will hold for over eleven years.

~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~
On November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin after being loaded with taconite (iron ore pellets) at Burlington Northern Railroad Dock No. 1, scheduled to deliver to a steel maker at Zug Island on the Detroit River. She is chartered to Oglebay Norton of Cleveland, and is under the command of Ernest M. McSorley.

About the same time, the Arthur M. Anderson left from Two Harbors, Minnesota, also carrying taconite, downbound for Gary, Indiana under the command of Jesse “Bernie” Cooper.

The normal downbound voyage to the Sault Ste. Marie locks would be a 24 to 28-hour run for a “laker” like the Fitz. But at 7:00 p.m. the National Weather Service reported that a rapidly intensifying storm over the Great Plains had changed course to the north and was bearing down on Lake Superior.

Gale warnings went up along a with a forecast for easterly winds from 25 to 37 knots during the night, then shifting to northwesterly at over 40 knots by the following afternoon. The two captains decide on a northerly run across the lake hoping to gain the lee of the Ontario shore.

Nov. 10, 1975 mid-afternoon. Both ships are now on the eastern half of the lake and heading on a southeasterly run to Whitefish Bay and the Soo Locks at the end of the lake, with the Fitz in the lead. The storm is getting stronger.

3:25 PM. The Edmund Fitzgerald rounds Caribou Island near the Six-Fathom Shoals; Capt. Cooper watches on radar and remarks to his first mate, Morgan E. Clark, “Look at this, Morgan. That’s the Fitzgerald, he’s in close to that six fathom spot.”
~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'~
3:30 PM. The Fitzgerald reports boarding seas.

“Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have sustained some topside damage. I have fence rail laid down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down. Will you stay by me ’til I get to Whitefish?”

“Charlie on that, Fitzgerald. Do you have your pumps going?”

“Yes, both of them.”
~The captain wired in he had water comin' in
and the good ship and crew was in peril~
4:10 PM. Heavy seas are breaking over the Fitzgerald‘s deck, the worst storm he had ever seen in his 44 years on the lakes, McSorley reported.

“Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have lost both radars. Can you provide me with radar plots till we reach Whitefish Bay?”

“Charlie on that, Fitzgerald. We’ll keep you advised of your

About 5:20 PM the crest of a wave smashed the Anderson’s starboard life boat rendering it useless. Captain Cooper reported winds at a steady 58 knots with gusts to 70 knots and seas of 18 to 25 feet.

About 6:55 PM the Anderson is struck by two huge waves that put green water on the pilot house, 35 feet above the water line.
[According to Cooper, he and the men in the pilot house felt a bump, felt the ship lurch and turned to see a monstrous wave engulfing the spar deck from astern. The wave worked its way along the deck, crashing on to the back of the pilothouse, driving the bow of the Anderson into the sea. “Then the Anderson just raised up and shook herself off of all that water -barroof - just like a big dog. Another wave just like the first one or bigger hit us again. I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald. And I think those are the two waves that sent him under,” Cooper recounted later.]

At 7:00 PM Morgan Clark calls to the Fitzgerald, to tell him that he has picked up the highland at Crisp Point and that the Fitzgerald was now 15 miles from Crisp Point, and as soon as Morgan can pick up Whitefish Point on radar he would let the Fitzgerald know.

At 7:10 PM The Anderson is 25 miles from Whitefish Bay and logs the Fitzgerald on radar 10 miles ahead. Morgan Clark radios the Fitzgerald to inform him of an approaching upbound vessel and the Fitzgerald is assured they will pass well clear of it. Before ending the conversation, Morgan Clark asks how the Fitzgerald was doing with his problem.

“We are holding our own.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll be talking to you later.” Morgan Clark is wrong. The Fitzgerald has made its last transmission.

~And later that night when 'is lights went out of sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.~
7:15 PM The Fitzgerald enters a heavy snow squall and is obscured from radar observation by the Anderson.

7:25 PM The squall clears. The crew of the Anderson can see the lights of three upbound vessels. There is no sign of the Fitzgerald, either visually or on radar. No ship has seen or passed the Fitzgerald. No radio contact can be made. The Edmund Fitzgerald has vanished.

On the Anderson they think they have the Fitzgerald pip on radar, but the signal disappears. They see it again, and lose it again. The Fitzgerald has disappeared from the radar of the Anderson.
~And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
with the gales of November remembered.~
The Fitzgerald and its crew of 29 men is just gone.
~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."~
- - -
Nov. 14, 1975. A Navy aircraft equipped with a magnetic anomaly detection unit locates an especially strong contact.

Nov. 14-16, 1975. A search from the cutter Woodrush using side scan sonar locates the wreckage of the Fitzgerald at 46’ 59.8 N, 85’ 06.7 W, 535 feet below the surface.

May 1976. The Fitz wreckage is inspected by the U.S. Navy CURV (Controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle) III. The wreckage lies in two major pieces. The bow section is 276 feet long and upright. The stern section is 253 feet long and upside down. The sections are 170 feet apart. About 200 feet of the midsection is disintegrated.

In 1976 the Canadians did re-soundings on the shoals area, which resulted in a chart correction. The shoals were a mile further east than shown on the original charts.

September 24, 1980. The wreck was explored by the Calypso.

July 4, 1995. The ship’s bronze bell was recovered by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society in a combined expedition with the Canadian Navy, National Geographic Society, Sony Corporation and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald now rests as a memorial to her lost crew in the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point.

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