The SS Edmund Fitzgerald has been gone for 38 years this month, but the disappearance of the Great Lakes freighter in a severe Lake Superior storm and the loss of its 29 crewmen, continues to fascinate.
Carrie Sowden, archaeological director of the Great Lakes Historical Society, will talk about the Fitzgerald and theories offered to explain its sinking at the Perrysburg Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday at the Carranor Hunt and Polo Club, 502 E. 2nd St. The cost is $20 for nonmembers and $17 for members.
Ms. Sowden, an accomplished diver, has never been down to the Fitzgerald, and for good reasons: It’s in more than 500 feet of water, just inside Canada, and has been declared off limits by the government.
“The people who have gone down have used ROVs [remote operated vehicles] and submersibles,” she explained. “No amateur diver could do it.”
Her presentation in Perrysburg will be called “The Edmund Fitzgerald: What Really Happened.” Not that Ms. Sowden, or anyone else, can say for sure what caused the Fitzgerald to go down in near hurricane force winds and waves up to 35 feet, the largest ship to sink in the Great Lakes.
“I’m going to talk a little about the history of the Fitz and what happened that night. I tell them I’m not going to say what happened, because I don’t know,” she said.
The Coast Guard’s explanation blames the sinking on water getting through the hatch covers and into the hold, but “only the Coast Guard believes that hatch-cover theory,” Ms. Sowden said.
Other theories include “shoaling,” the possibility that the Fitzgerald hit an underwater mountain in the middle of Lake Superior, or the rogue waves that pushed the ship down or picked it up caused structural damage.
Ms. Sowden said she believes it was a combination of shoaling and rogue waves that doomed the ship. It lies on the bottom in two pieces, but “I don’t believe she broke up on the surface from the way she sits underwater.”
The ship went down Nov.10, 1975.
When launched on June 8, 1958, she was the largest ship on North America's Great Lakes. Nicknamed Mighty Fitz, Fitz, or Big Fitz, the ship suffered a series of mishaps during her launch: it took three attempts to break the champagne bottle used to christen her, and she collided with a pier when she entered the water.
For 17 years Fitzgerald carried taconite iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minn., to iron works in Detroit, Toledo, and other Great Lakes ports. As a "workhorse" she set seasonal haul records six times, often beating her own previous record. Capt. Peter Pulcer was known for piping music day or night over the ship's intercom system while passing through the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers (between Lakes Huron and Erie), and entertaining spectators at the Soo Locks (between Lakes Superior and Huron) with a running commentary about the ship. Her size, record-breaking performance, and "DJ captain" endeared Fitzgerald to boat watchers.
Carrying a full cargo of ore pellets with Capt. Ernest M. McSorley in command, she embarked on her final voyage from Superior, Wis. (near Duluth), on the afternoon of Nov. 9, 1975. En route to a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan, Fitz joined a second freighter, the SS Arthur M. Anderson. By the next day the two ships were caught in the midst of a severe winter storm on Lake Superior, with near hurricane-force winds and waves up to 35 feet high. Shortly after 7:10 p.m. Fitzgerald suddenly sank in Canadian waters 530 feet deep, about 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay near the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Although Fitzgerald had reported being in difficulty earlier, no distress signals were sent before she sank. Her crew of 29 all perished, and no bodies were recovered.
Many theories, books, studies and expeditions have examined the cause of the sinking. Fitzgerald may have fallen victim to the high waves of the storm, suffered structural failure, been swamped with water entering through her cargo hatches or deck, experienced topside damage, or shoaled in a shallow part of Lake Superior. The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is one of the best-known disasters in the history of Great Lakes shipping. Gordon Lightfoot made it the subject of his 1976 hit song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
Investigations into the sinking led to changes in Great Lakes shipping regulations and practices that included mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard, and more frequent inspection of vessels.
By Carl Ryan - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (MCT)
©2013 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)
Visit The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) at www.toledoblade.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services