At 729 feet in length, nearly 40 feet tall and 75 wide while weighing in at 13,632 tons before cargo, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the pride of the Great Lakes and was thought to be unsinkable. But the Great Lakes have 6,000 shipwrecks to their credit, claiming over 30,000 lives. No ship will ever be unconquerable once in the clutches of these mighty waters and thrity years ago the invincible Mighty Fitz and the crew of 29 proved to be no match for the November gales of Lake Superior.
At 7 p.m. on that night a ship that had reached safe harbor had made radio contact with the Fitz and had the ship on its radar. The last words from the Captain were We are holding our own, moments later the Fitz disappeared from the radar screen. The conditions of the lifeboats and the fact that no distress signals were given suggest that the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald (which now rests at the bottom of Lake Superior 530 feet below the surface) happened quickly, giving the crew no chance at survival.
Only the Titanic ranks greater in shipwreck lore, but the sinking of the Mighty Fitz is a close second and by far is the most famous of the thousands of Great Lakes shipwrecks. Interest in its sinking remains high primarily because of Gordon Lightfoots number one hit The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Canadian folksinger penned the song the day after the sinking and released it a few months later.
Even 30 years later the sinking is shrouded in controversy. Several theories exist as to the cause. Family members of the victims and others associated with the wreck have had disagreements over the years ranging from the cause to where memorials should be located.
Author and researcher Michael Schumacher recently wrote The Mighty Fitz. Schumachers book will be released November 10 by Bloomsbury USA and the author suggests that interest in Mighty Fitz remains high because there were no survivors.
Other ships have sank with more casualties but they had survivors so there is knowledge to how those ships sank, said Schumacher. Because the Fitz had no survivors only theories will exist as to how it actually sank. The fact that there was no cry for help adds to the mystery of this. Also during my research I found so many people want ownership of this tragedy. They want to be recognized as the authority and I think that has played into the disagreements and challenges that exist.
Schumacher is a best-selling biographer whose previous works have included the definitive biographies on Eric Clapton, Allen Ginsberg, Francis Ford Coppola and the infamous folk singer Phil Ochs (suicide kept him from reaching Dylan status). He also has written the narratives for 25 shipwreck documentaries (three on them on the Edmund Fitzgerald) all from the Great Lakes. His interest in the mighty waters comes from growing up along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Wisconsin; he currently resides in a small waterfront community near Milwaukee.
I have always felt a connection to the Great Lakes. Even today I go and look at Lake Michigan at least once a day. It is literally in my backyard, and everyday I stare in awe, said Schumacher. I was 25 when the Fitz sank. I was living in Milwaukee at the time and because that was the homeport (the boat was named after Edmund Fitzgerald, president of Milwaukee based Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company) there was a lot of media coverage. So when my agent told me Bloomsbury wanted a book for the 30th anniversary I jumped on it.
For Schumacher the biggest challenge in writing the book was sorting fact from fiction.
Over time history has a tendency to rewrite itself. I felt it was important to go back and review documents as close to the event as possible versus relying on a lot that has been written as a result of heresay, said Schumacher. I didnt even rely on the final report from the Marine Board investigation, I went back and read the thousands of pages of testimony given in the hearings to the Board. This helped me understand the mindset of those closest to the incident.
Schumacher even interviewed two of the three living Marine Board investigators who shed further light on the most likely theory.
At the time of the hearings the investigators couldnt emphasize their primary theory because again it was only a theory. The fact that so many attorneys were involved and because lawsuits were pending they had to be careful not to make authoritative statements based on their theories, said Schumacher. In my interviews with the investigators they spoke with more conviction to the lack of buttoning down the hatches theory. Again it is just a theory, we will never know the actual cause.
There are a dozen or so theories that continue to be discussed. Two of the most popular are the fact that the load line was raised to allow for more cargo. The load line is where the ship rests in the water and the increased load line meant the Edmund Fitzgerald sat lower in the water resulting in the frequency and quantity of water that flooded her deck during the storm.
A second theory is the damaged hatches and the fact that not all hatches were closed, resulting in the ship taking in large amounts of water. An October 31 inspection noted damage to the hatches and the ship was scheduled for repair after the 1975 shipping season ended. The theory is that the ship was probably taking on water in the cargo hold throughout the storm, eventually shifting the cargo causing the ship to take on water even quicker resulting in the sudden sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Sinking theories will remain popular coffee shop talk conversation for years to come.
Locally, TV 9 & 10 News will air a documentary on Thursday November 10 at 7 pm. Produced by TV anchor Doug Petcash and photojournalist Corey Adkins the one-hour program will include interviews with family members of the crew as well as live coverage of the memorial service from The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point (located 17 miles from the sinking and the safe harbor that the Edmund Fitzgerald was trying to reach). Petcash was only five when the Fitzgerald went down but he remembers asking his mom about it.
We were in the car and the Lightfoot song came on. I asked my mother what the Edmund Fitzgerald was, said Petcash. She told me and from that moment on the story has stuck with me.
Petcash said the station did some things for the 25th anniversary so he felt it was important to update viewers as well has put faces to the story.
We want our viewers to see the human side of this tragedy, said Petcash. There were 29 men on board that went down with the ship. They had families, they were fathers, and they were sons. With so much emphasis always being given to the sinking theories sometimes the human side of this is lost. The ceremony at Whitefish Point will be very moving and so we will go live to that as the bell from the ship (it was salvaged in 1995 by divers and then restored and is rung annually at the memorial service) is rung.
Bay Mills Resort and Casino in Sault Ste. Marie will sponsor a benefit dinner on November 11 with proceeds benefiting the Great Lakes Mariners Memorial Fund. Additional information on the dinner and the ceremony at Whitefish Point are available at www.shipwreckmuseum.com or by calling them at 888-492-3747.
As for Schumacher, he is embarking on a tour of Great Lakes port communities to speak and sign copies of his book. Early reviews have been glowing: Publishers Weekly wrote Schumacher, aided by his encyclopedic knowledge of Great Lakes shipwrecks and his abiding interest in telling an accurate, unsensationalized story makes this a rewarding narrative and from Booklist Schumacher gives portraits of the crew, assessing the possibility of human error without gratuitous finger-pointing, and he includes moving portraits of the crews families. Finally, he gives a balanced account of the subsequent discovery and exploration of the wreck, some of which has been so competitive and in such dubious taste that the wreck has been declared a gravesite to which further diving is barred.
His tour wont bring him to Northern Michigan this year but he plans to come next November for the release of the paperback version of the book. Look for a special dinner and reading at that time. But dont wait until then to get the book. The Mighty Fitz is a compelling read and Schumacher was scrupulous in his research and equally meticulous in his writing.