Friday, November 4, 2011

Ship History 5

Ship History 5


Kevin Scott Bolinger

    Welcome aboard, and thank you for joining me in another look at maritime history. It is now November, and to many mariners on the Great Lakes, this can spell trouble. November can whip up storms on the inland seas so powerful, that they can be far more deadly and dangerous then even the fiercest North Atlantic gale. To those who sail the lakes, these storms have become known as the November Witch. It was during one such storm that one of the largest bulk ore carriers the lakes had ever seen, met her fate. In a tragedy that would claim the life of every man on board, but would go on to inspire a hit folk song by Gordon Lightfoot, I am proud to bring you the story of the EDMUND FITZGERALD.

    The Great Lake can be a peaceful place most of the year, however, due to their land locked nature, the winds can build the waters to tremendous heights. Waves can grow larger than those on the open ocean. As the fall approaches, the lower temperatures can whip up blinding snowstorms. In the early days of commerce on the lakes, it was not uncommon for many ships and sailors to be lost during the storms that seemed to pop up in the month of November. As modern shipbuilding advanced, a sort of hubris came over the lakes, many thinking the iron and steel giants were immune to such things. Unfortunately, this would be proven false numerous times in the twentieth century.

    During the 1950’s, much of the trade on the lakes consisted of iron ore, in the form of taconite pellets. These were usually carried by bulk freighters, ships with huge holds, covered with massive steel hatches, held in place by numerous clamps. As the ships grew larger, it was discovered that if one of the longer bulk carriers was caught in the trough between two large waves, the middle could sag, or even snap in two, or the reverse could occur, with the center of the ship supported, and the bow and stern being pulled down. This is know as hogging, and over time, it can really take its toll on a ships hull. 
Launch Day, June 8,1958

    In June of 1958, what was then the largest bulk freighter to ever sail the lakes, was launched, but not without controversy. It took three attempts to break the champagne bottle against her hull, then, as the great ship hit the water, she slammed into the dock on the other side of  her berth, causing a spectator to have a heart attack and die. The EDMUND FITZGERALD certainly knew how to make an entrance. By September she was ready to take to the lakes in the role she had been designed for.

    From the get-go, the ship was a record setter. Besides being the largest ship on the lakes, she also held record for the largest load of ore carried, fastest crossing, and numerous other accolades. She also earned a number of nicknames in her career, such as “The Mighty Fitz”  , “The Big Fitz” , and “The Toledo Express” , just to name a few. For seventeen years she would ply her trade, and though larger, newer ships would enter the waters, she was always a popular ship with both sailors and those on the land.
The "Mighty Fitz" in an undated photo.

    As November approaches on the Great Lakes, many ships are laid up for the oncoming winter. Some Captains, however, like to try and squeeze one or two more runs before the weather closes in. There were a few captains on the lakes that did not fear the storms, determined to push through any weather to make port. One such captain was Ernest McSorley, a Canadian by birth, but a resident of Toledo, OH. He had taken command of the FITZGERALD in 1972, and by 1975 was looking to retire. His wife was in ill health, and he wished to leave the lakes and be at her side. He decided that once the FITZ  was laid up for the winter, he would end his career after nearly 40 years at sea.

   On November 9th, 1975, the EDMUND FITZGERALD left Superior,WI with a load of 26,000 tons of ore, destined for the auto makers in Detroit, MI. The early weather reports did not indicate the fierce storm that would soon build Lake Superior into a monster.  At her top speed of 14 knots, the FITZGERALD could usually outrun most storms, or muscle her way through. If only McSorley knew that he would be sailing his ship into one of the largest storms to hit the region, he might have held off a few days.

   Weather reporting at the time was not as precise as it is today, and the forecast that McSorley had was that a small storm would pass to the south of the lake, where as his course had him following the northern track, closer to the Canadian shore. The ship had also gotten in line with another freighter, the ARTHUR M. ANDERSON, captained by Bernie Cooper. The two had discussed the approaching weather system on their ship to ship communications, and decided to stay close to one another. 
The FITZ in much calmer weather.

    By the early morning of November 10th, the weather had begun to deteriorate some, but nothing major, after all, the system was well to the south of the two ships, according to the National Weather Service. What no one knew was that a low from Canada was moving into place, and that it would cause the storm to explode. By 2 am  the winds had climbed to over 50 knots, and the seas were already at ten feet. At 3 am, the faster FITZGERALD had overtaken and passed the ANDERSON.

    By mid-afternoon, Bernie Cooper had lost sight of the FITZGERALD , but she was still on his radar, about 16 miles ahead. It had also begun to snow, further reducing visibility. Shortly after 3:30 pm, McSorley radioed Cooper, and told him the FITZGERALD was taking on water. Her pumps were holding, but the ship had also lost two vent covers, and some railing. The lake was beginning to become a dangerous place to be. Cooper decided to set a course for Whitefish Bay, and shelter, to ride out the storm. At around 4:10 pm, McSorley again radioed the ANDERSON to report that he had lost his radar. He slowed the FITZ down to allow the other ship to catch up, and Cooper, using his radar, started to guide the wounded ship towards Whitefish Bay.
Captain Ernest McSorley

    Shortly thereafter, McSorley contacted the U.S Coast guard station at Whitefish Point, inquiring about the light and radio beacon. The light was operational, but not the radio beacon. McSorley then sent out a message to any ships in the vicinity. He was answered by Captain Woodward of the AVAFORS. McSorley let him know that the FITZGERALD had developed a bad list, and that he had lost both his radars. He also reported he was taking heavy seas over his bow. He went on to tell Woodward that this was the worst seas he had ever been in.

    Back on the ANDERSON, Bernie Cooper was watching his radar intently, making sure the EDMUND FITZGERALD  was still with him. At 7:10 pm, he radioed McSorley to let him know of another ship in the vicinity, finally asking him how they were making out. McSorley answered with “We are holding our own.” These would be the last words ever heard from McSorley, and this would be the last time the EDMUND FITZGERALD would ever sail the lakes. Moments after the conversation, the “Mighty Fitz” was swallowed. Cooper no longer had her on his radar, and all attempts to raise her on radio failed.

   The ANDERSON made it to Whitefish Bay. Along the way, Cooper had radioed the USCG and let them know the FITZ was missing. Soon, the USCG was asking Cooper to turn around, and head back into the jaws of the storm, to look for the missing freighter. He was understandably reluctant at first, knowing that the FITZGERALD was probably on the bottom of the lake, and he did not wish for the ANDERSON to join her. However, in the end, he did return to search.

    Traces of the ship were found the next day, chief amongst them was a lifeboat, empty and torn to shreds. The FITZGERALD had a crew of twenty nine men, including her captain, and there was no trace of any of them. A few days later, a sonar search revealed the great ship, broken in two, her stern section flipped upside down, lying on the lake bed. A survey was done of the wreck in the summer 1976, bringing a positive identification to the wreckage.
An artist's rendition of the wreck.

   Many questions were left in the wake of the sinking. What happened? What caused such a large ship to suddenly vanish without a trace? Did she break in two at the surface?  Were her hatches overwhelmed by the heavy seas beating down on the hull? There have been many theories over the years, and each have their supporters and detractors. I shall try to present them all, however, I actually believe that is was a combination of factors that doomed the FITZGERALD.

   The first, and probably most controversial of the theories, is the one the conclusion the official inquiry came up with. The USCG believed that the hatches on the ship were not properly secured by the crew, allowing water to pour into her hull, making her more susceptible to the larger waves the storm had generated. I have been aboard a lake freighter, there is one moored as a museum ship in Toledo, OH. I have looked at the hatches and the clamps used to secure them. Each hatch has about forty clamps holding it in place. Also, the hatches themselves weigh tons. One experienced captain had claimed that even with no clamps holding a hatch cover down, that only about a cup full of water would get through. I cannot speak to that, but I do know how the clamps work, and that even if one or two are not fully tightened, there are so many holding down the hatch, that it really should not matter. This theory was not well met by the families of those lost. The FITZ  had one of the best and most experienced crews on the lakes, it was an insult to them and their memory to suggest that they would not fully tighten all the clamps.
An underwater shot of the ship's pilot house.

   The second theory, this one based on the condition of the wreck, suggests that the ship might have been caught between two very large wave, and she hogged, splitting in two and heading right to the bottom, her stern flipping due to the centrifugal force of the still turning propeller. Some of this theory may have contributed to the sinking, however, this ignores the fact that for a few hours leading up to her loss, that the ship was taking on water. It is possible, however, that in her already weakened state, that hogging did occur, exacerbating an already bad situation.

    The next theory, and one that probably has the most contributing factors, is the rouge wave theory. The ANDERSON had reported a rather large, 36 ft rouge wave had just passed them and was heading for the FITZGERALD moments before she vanished from radar. NOAA conducted computer models in 2005, and came to the conclusion that a rouge wave could have brought the already wounded ship to the bottom in almost an instant. The ship, at 729ft in length, was longer then the 500 ft depth in which she sank. If a rouge wave did hit her, it could have drove her bow to the bottom, causing the stern to twist and snap off.

    Yet another theory has to do with waves, this one know as the three sisters. Basically, it states that the ship was inundated by three large waves that came one right after the other, overwhelming her and sending her to the bottom. Given the nature of the storm, and how fast the seas build in the shallower inland seas, this can be very plausible.

    Another theory bring in the age of the ship. At seventeen, she was not a young ship. The long years of storms, harsh winters, and heavy loads of ore do take a toll on a ships hull. The FITZ had gone through a refit in recent years to increase her carrying capacity. This could have weakened the hull to the point that during the storm, stress fractures appeared, until finally, the hull gave way. Given her long years of service, her age could very well have done her in.

     The topside damage theory is a rather recent one. During the storm, she had suffered damage to vents and railing on her upper deck, as well as developing a list. It is theorized that the upper deck damage, lead to the flooding of the ballast tanks, causing the ship to sit lower in the water than she normally would during such heavy weather. Given the state of the one recovered lifeboat, you can see the damage the surging waters of the lake is capable of, even on a steel ship.
One of the recovered lifeboats, badly twisted and torn.

     The last theory, and one I feel contributed the most to her sinking, is the bottoming out theory. After the FITZGERALD had passed the ANDERSON, Captain Cooper had noticed on his radar that the faster ship was getting a bit to close to an area of the lake known as Six Fathom Shoal, northwest of Caribou Island. Once he heard McSorley say he was taking on water, he believed the FITZ  had struck bottom in the shallows. There is yet another shoal she may have struck, earlier in the voyage, know as the Superior Shoal. This shoal was first discovered in 1926, and is really a mountain under the lake that rises from four hundred feet down, to just a few feet below the surface. Given that the lake was heaving up and down, the loss of radar, the blinding snow, it is quite possible that the ship might have touched bottom somewhere in either shoals, puncturing her bottom amidships. However, given that the stern section of the wreck in upside down and shows no evidence of shoaling, this theory sometimes get flack.

    I feel it was a combination of factors, the ships age, the extreme weather conditions not seen on the lake in a long time, the loss of navigational aides, leading to possible shoaling. Whatever the true cause, what we do know is that whatever happened, it was fast. There as no distress call heard. The ship vanished off Cooper’s radar in an instant. Twenty-nine men were taken to their deaths in the blink of an eye.

    In the mid 90’s, it was decided that a more permanent memorial needed to be made. With the blessing of the families, a diver was sent down to recover the ships bell, still attached above the bridge. After it was successfully brought to the surface, a replica, with the names of all twenty-nine men, was lowered to the ship, and welded in its place. The original bell now rests in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, Whitefish Point, MI, 15 miles from where the ship herself lies.
The ship's bell, as seen at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

   The Great Lakes, especially Superior, have a way of preserving human remains. At the depths in which the FITZGERALD lies, it is very cold and there is no oxygen. These condition do not let the body decay as normal. On many survey dives to the wreck, it has been reported that there are bodies still on and around the ship. This is highly probable, given the conditions. There is another shipwreck in the lakes famous for the fact that her chief engineer still sits in his engine room, his skin turned to an almost soap like consistency after nearly 100 years below the lake, yet he still looks the same as when he too went down with his ship.

   In recent years, legislation has been put in place, mostly by the Canadian government, in whose waters the ship rests, to keep people from diving the wreck. Even to do historical surveys, one needs many permits, and has to make assurances that an evidence of those lost is not photographed or recorded. The families of those lost wish that everyone would just leave the “Mighty Fitz” be for the rest of eternity.

   If you want more information about this great ship, I suggest the book Mighty Fitz: The Story of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Michael Schumacher. He does a real fine job of retelling this most recent of Great Lakes tragedies.

    My wife’s family has a slight connection to the “Mighty Fitz.”  Her Uncle John, who was a plumber by trade, now retired, began his career working on the large lake freighters during their winter lay-ups. In the early part of 1975, he began work on repairing the plumbing of one such freighter. He had the opportunity to et to know her captain, whom he described as a very nice and competent man. That captain, Ernest McSorley, the ship, the EDMUND FITZGERALD.  Thank you for joining me on this voyage into history. As always, feedback is most certainly welcome. I am not sure of where in history we shall make our next port of call, but until then, be well, and good journey.

1 comment:

  1. A great writer Kevin Scott Bolinger. Thanks for the dedicated writing for this Ship.