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Lost ship's legend lives on

By Jim Kavanagh, CNN
  • Ore freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a vicious storm 35 years ago Wednesday
  • Captain and 29 crew members went down with the ship, remembered in song
  • No one knows exactly why the ship plummeted to the bottom of Lake Superior
  • Victims' family members will ring ship's bell during memorial service

(CNN) -- The vicious, swirling storm that battered the Great Lakes region in late October inspired talk of a similar gale that brought about one of the great mysteries of the 20th century.

The mighty ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the largest ships on America's inland seas, seemed invincible in its bulk and mass, but it was no match for a howling Lake Superior gale on November 10, 1975.

A day earlier, the 729-foot behemoth, operated by mineral company Oglebay Norton, had chugged away from port in Superior, Wisconsin, on a course that would take it across the length of Lake Superior, through the Soo Locks and down Lake Huron to Detroit, Michigan, a journey that should have taken about 48 hours.

With the storm bearing down on them the next morning, the Fitzgerald and another freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson, took a northerly route, hoping the Canadian shore would provide a buffer. Icy rain was driven sideways by hurricane-force wind and monstrous 25-foot waves crashed over the main deck, which rode less than 12 feet above the waterline.

Capt. Ernest McSorley, a 37-year veteran on his last sail before retirement, stayed in radio contact with the Anderson and another ship, the Avafors. At 3:30 p.m., he reported his ship had suffered minor damage and was listing, or leaning to one side, in the storm, according to the Coast Guard report on the accident.

One of the worst seas I've ever been in.
--Capt. Ernest McSorley, in 1975 radio call

Things only got worse as the afternoon dragged on.

"I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck," McSorley radioed around 6 p.m. "One of the worst seas I've ever been in."

Listen to the ship captains' radio traffic

He tried to make a run for the safety of Whitefish Bay on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But about 7:10 p.m., the ship suddenly disappeared from radar and radio, without a call for help.

The Arthur M. Anderson made it to Whitefish Bay, but Capt. Bernie Cooper and his crew agreed to go back out into the maelstrom to search for survivors, as did the William Clay Ford. The searchers "went out and got the hell beat out of them," one observer said, but all they found were two splintered lifeboats and a single, unoccupied life jacket.

Nearly a week later, a U.S. Coast Guard sonar ship found the Fitzgerald. It had been wrestled to the ice-cold lake bed 530 feet below, its steel hull ripped into pieces, its 26,000 tons of taconite pellets spilled, McSorley and his 28 crewmen entombed forever.

Not one body was ever recovered, and no one knows exactly what caused the Mighty Fitz to founder. The mystery grew into legend over the years, helped along by a National Geographic special and a haunting popular song by Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot.

Hear the song

The wreck shook Great Lakes shipping to its carlings. To this day, 35 years later, freighters won't get underway on Lake Superior if there's a storm in the forecast, said Laura Jacobs, archivist for the Lake Superior Maritime Collection at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

"They became much more cautious," she said. "When they put out a weather report now, ships don't move. The [Superior] harbor was stuffed" before and during last month's storm, in which a buoy recorded 19-foot waves on the lake.

They're talking about storms in the North Atlantic, and ours up here are worse.
--Laura Jacobs, University of Wisconsin-Superior

Lake Superior's water is so cold year round that people who fall off boats and ships often die before rescuers can reach them, even in midsummer, Jacobs said, so storms are not to be trifled with.

"Navigation on the lakes is a real different animal," she said. "We have captains that come up from the oceans and say they would rather be on the Atlantic than deal with the storms here. They're talking about storms in the North Atlantic, and ours up here are worse."

With more caution, better weather forecasting and modern navigational aids such as GPS, the Great Lakes have not seen another disaster like the wreck of the Mighty Fitz.

The Fitzgerald's remains lie in Canadian waters. Canadian law regards the wreck as a grave site and prohibits pleasure dives to it, and scientific dives require a legitimate forensic purpose and permission from the families, said Tom Farnquist, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.

So, the mystery lives on.

"I don't think we'll ever have a definitive answer," said Tim McCall, who maintains an authoritative website dedicated to the disaster.

This wasn't just a ship that sank. ... These were brothers and they were fathers and they were sons.
--Tim McCall, Edmund Fitzgerald expert

But the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald isn't a story about a ship, it's a story about a bunch of hardworking men, 20 to 63 years old, and their families, McCall said.

"These were 29 men," he said. "This wasn't just a ship that sank. ... These were brothers and they were fathers and they were sons."

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank 10 years before McCall was born. But a middle school history project sparked a fascination with the accident and the men who perished in it, and the project grew into an ever-expanding website.

Visit McCall's Edmund Fitzgerald archive

Pam Johnson, the daughter of ship's cook Robert Rafferty (who is specifically mentioned in Lightfoot's song), contacted McCall when he was about 16 to thank him for the accuracy and sensitivity of the site, McCall said. Thus began a trusting relationship between a man born after the disaster and the families of many of the men who died in it.

"It's been really important to me, just hearing their stories," said McCall, now a doctoral candidate in psychology at Purdue University in Indiana.

McCall will not be able to attend Wednesday's 7 p.m. ET memorial service at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. But he did attend one several years ago at the Mariners' Church in Detroit, where he was counted among the families.

"It was an honor for me to be able to sit up front with them," McCall said.

[It is] the soul of the ship and the voice of the men.
--Tom Farnquist, speaking of the ship's bell

The centerpiece of the memorial service is the Fitzgerald's 200-pound brass bell, which was recovered in 1995 by a team led by Farnquist. It was replaced with a replica bearing the names of the dead.


"So you've got a grave marker there now," Farnquist said. "And the original bell, which is the soul of the ship and the voice of the men, was brought up and it gets tolled every year in the museum gallery for those that want to come and families that want to be close."

See all the men's names, jobs and hometowns

The bell is rung once for each man lost. As many as 10 family members are expected this year to step forward and sound the bell, Farnquist said.

"We helped bring closure, or as much closure as you can, to people who couldn't recover their loved ones -- sons, fathers, husbands, grandfathers and so on, who are still lying on that ship for eternity."