The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

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By Katelynn Griffin

 This week we celebrated Veterans Day to pay tribute to the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, there are numerous other memorials held throughout the year for equally brave and courageous people whose actions are just as worthy of commemorating. These services may not be televised or have a special day on the calendar, but they happen just the same. A memorial service takes place every Nov. 10 in a city in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The memorial service held in Paradise, Michigan pays tribute to the 29 men that lost their lives aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald when the freighter was claimed by Lake Superior 38 years ago. The ship was made famous by Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The 729-foot freighter left Superior, Wis. bound for Detroit and was hauling 26,000 tons of taconite, or iron ore. Captain Ernest McSorley was at the helm and was aware of a winter storm that would be barreling over the lakes. He and fellow Captain Bernie Cooper, of the Arthur M. Anderson freighter, had planned accordingly, plotting a course that would offer some shelter from the winds. 

Gale warnings had been issued and on Nov. 10 they were upgraded to a storm warning, with winds gusting to 57 mph and seas swelling 12 to 16 feet. At 3:30 p.m. McSorley radioed the Anderson informing them that he had two fence rails down, two damaged vents, and a list. He radioed that he had both pumps in operation and requested the Anderson stay close until they safely reached Whitefish Point. 

Almost two hours later the Anderson was hit by a large wave that forced the bow under the water.  They were then struck by a second wave. Cooper watched these waves go toward the Fitzgerald.

At this point the weather had further deteriorated with sustained winds of 67 mph and gusts up to 70 mph.  Sea swells were 18 to 25 feet. The crew of the Anderson lost track of the Fitz on radar, due to the waves being so high that they interfered with the equipment.  

The last communication with McSorely was at 7:10 p.m. Morgan Clark of the Anderson was keeping watch over the Fitz and asked the Captain “How are you making out with your problems?”

“We are holding our own,” replied McSorely.

The ship was no longer visible and when it failed to make it to harbor, Cooper alerted authorities. The Coast Guard asked that the Anderson go back out in the storm and search for the Fitzgerald. All they found was the Fitzgerald’s two lifeboats and debris, but no survivors. The Fitzgerald had sunk on November 10, 1975.   

The Coast Guard used sonar and discovered two large pieces of wreckage in the area off of Whitefish Point where the Fitzgerald was last seen. It wouldn’t be until the following May that a conclusive identity of the wreckage would occur.  

It’s still a mystery why the ship split into two large pieces, with experts speculating that the ship was caught in a trough between two large waves. 

It was decided that in order to pay tribute to the 29 men that lost their lives aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald they would recover one item from the ship- its bell.  

In June of 1995 the Canadian government granted permission to recover the bell and on July 4 the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald was recovered. A replica bell was replaced with the names of the 29 crew members.  

On Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum presented the annual Edmund Fitzgerald Service. The Call to the Last Watch Ceremony consists of the ship’s bell being rung 29 times for each lost crew member and a 30th ring is dedicated for all those who have lost their lives on the Great Lakes.   

I have been to the Whitefish Point Light Station and gazed out into the waters of Lake Superior.  Only 17 miles from shore, on the lake bottom lays one of the most famous vessels to ever sail the Great Lakes.