Legend lingers of Edmund Fitzgerald PDF Print E-mail
Written by ALEX ASPACHER Sentinel Staff Writer   
Friday, 29 November 2013 10:28
PERRYSBURG - It's remembered in song and spirit around Northwest Ohio, but intrigue still surrounds the unsolved mystery of the Great Lakes.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald lives on at the bottom of Lake Superior, tantalizing those at the Chamber of Commerce's monthly luncheon last week. On the heels of several campaign forums that preceded the election earlier this month, the event was a welcome change from political subjects.
Carrie Sowden, archaeological director of the Great Lakes Historical Society, reviewed the ship's story and evaluated some of the common theories of how it came to sink Nov. 10, 1975. Speaking at the Carranor Hunt and Polo Club, she shared her brash opinion on the U.S. Coast Guard's explanation of how the "Fitz" went down during a strong storm on open water.
The agency maintains that while heading from Minnesota to Detroit in the face of high winds and 35-foot waves, bad hatches allowed water inside that eventually flooded the cargo hold.
"The National Transportation Safety Board, the Lake Carriers' Association, and basically every other person I know, that I talk to, thinks that it's hogwash," Sowden said of the official explanation of the wreck.
Launched in 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship of its day, built at 711 feet to take advantage of the size of the Great Lakes locks it would use. Named for the president of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, the first U.S. company to insure a Great Lakes freighter, it could only dock in certain ports, hauling iron ore and other "premium loads" across the region, Sowden said.
Leaving Duluth, Minn., on Nov. 9, the ship's experienced captain, Ernest McSorley, evidently wasn't worried about the storm forecasted along the route. He was slated to retire at the end of the shipping season, not far off.
"This is a guy who spent a lot of time on the lakes. He knew the lakes, he knew the weather patterns, and he knew this boat. He had been captain of this boat for three years. He knew what it could handle, he knew its foibles, he knew how strong it was. He'd seen it through a lot of weather."
McSorley knew how to approach the storm, staying along a northern route to avoid the stronger winds and traveling with another boat, the Arthur M. Anderson, as the storm whipped the water and shrank visibility to nearly nonexistent.
The Fitzgerald began to take on water and endure equipment failures, eventually losing both radar units and navigating blind with the help of the other ship. Sowden explained that the two boats stayed in contact, and McSorley reported in several times. He said they had problems but were "holding their own."
The Anderson's captain then encountered two large, sudden waves.
"Ten minutes later, the Fitz disappears off the radar and is never heard from or seen again," Sowden said.
The Anderson looked for survivors and evidence of a wreck but uncovered nothing. Several days later, the missing ship was located via sonar in two pieces at the bottom of the lake, not far away from its destination at Whitefish Bay near the Canadian border.
All 29 crew members died, and the ship still sits more than 500 feat beneath the surface, in two pieces and surrounded by the iron ore it hauled. Its bell was salvaged in the 1990s, but the wreck remains off-limits and is only accessible by submarine.
Sowden suggested three possibilities, all or none of which she said could have caused the disaster. While staying north and without radar, the ship may have been blind to a well-known shoal, an underwater sand bar or mountain range.
The two waves reported by the Anderson may also be a tell-tale sign.
The large Fitz could have been lifted up by both waves simultaneously. With its middle unsupported, the ship could have broken under the stress.
Or, it may have gone up one wave and, while descending, been pushed underwater by the second, wrecking against the bottom.
Sowden said she believes a combination of the "shoal" and "push" theories may have been what doomed the Edmund Fitzgerald.
"I believe that if the Fitz wasn't already leaking, listing, downed fence rails, downed radar, and something like this happened, it would have recovered. I'm imagining that by this point the Fitz is riding very low in the water and is unable to recover from something like this.
"This is going to happen very quickly. You are going to have no time to call for help. ... For the fact that (McSorley) didn't ask for any help, and he never called and said 'We're going down,' that's what I really believe happened."
After explaining the legend and how it may have come to be, Sowden invited the audience to learn more about this and other ship lore by visiting the National Museum of the Great Lakes, set to open in downtown Toledo in April.
"We actually have a very significant collection of Fitzgerald artifacts."

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