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Program commemorates 44th anniversary of S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sinking

By DAVID PATCH • Nov 5, 2019 at 4:42 PM

TOLEDO — A weekend of special programming commemorating the 44th anniversary of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald's catastrophic sinking is planned Saturday and Sunday at the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

"The Fitzgerald Experience" will include guided tours of the museum's preserved freighter, the S.S. Col. James M. Schoonmaker, and viewings of its documentary film, A Good Ship and Crew Well Seasoned: The Fitzgerald and Her Legacy.

"Although the Schoonmaker was built four decades before the Fitzgerald, the Schoonmaker was converted to a steam turbine in the mid-1950s and therefore has many of the same features as the famous shipwreck," said Christopher Gillcrist, the museum's executive director.

"We believe that to fully understand the loss of the Fitz, you need to see things like the hatch clamps, vent covers, and the fence rails to appreciate how the Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Lake Carriers' Association came to three different conclusions as to her loss," Gillcrist said.

The Fitzgerald sank during a vicious storm on Nov. 10, 1975 while transiting eastern Lake Superior on its way from Superior, Wis. to Detroit with a load of taconite pellets. Its entire 29-man crew perished including its captain, Ernest McSorley of Ottawa Hills, and several others from the Toledo area.

A Coast Guard report nearly two years later blamed the sinking on improperly secured hatch covers allowing the cargo hold to flood, causing the Fitzgerald to lose buoyancy. The NTSB also cited cargo-hold flooding but concluded that one or more hatch covers had been damaged by heavy seas pounding the ship's deck.

The Lake Carriers' Association, meanwhile, argued that the ship must have struck a reef, Six Fathom Shoal, in the lake as it bobbed up and down in the storm's huge waves.

Others have theorized that a sequence of massive waves could have sent the ship to the bottom, perhaps even by snapping it in half before it sank. When found, the Fitzgerald's wreckage was in two main pieces.

The sinking and its mysterious circumstances were later immortalized in Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot's ballad, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," and it is commemorated annually on its anniversary by the tolling of a bell 29 times at the Mariners' Church of Detroit.

The museum's 75-minute tour of the Schoonmaker, followed by the film screening, "will provide guests with a more experiential and hands-on discussion of the tragedy, the theories surrounding the sinking, and the many stories of the 29 crew members lost," Gillcrist said.

The weekend events also will mark the Schoonmaker's final public openings of the year.

Tickets valid for the vessel tour, film screening, and museum admission are on sale to the general public for $25, with a $5 discount for museum members. Tickets may be ordered online at nmgl.org or by phone at 419-214-5000.


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