A tale of the Edmund Fitzgerald

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

On November 10, 1975, an iron ore carrier named the Edmund Fitzgerald sank with all hands off Whitefish Bay in Ontario waters of Lake Superior. Because singer songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote a ballad about it in 1976, the whole of North America was soon singing, and still sings, the sad song.

“When suppertime came the old cook came on deck

Saying ‘Fellows it’s too rough to feed ya.’

At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then

He said, ‘Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.’”

As haunting and elegiac as the words of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” are, I had always relegated the tune to a romantic yarn out of the distant past. Until I heard a story at a party the other night, it never crossed my mind that the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald was a calamity that occurred in my lifetime.

When asked at his 76th birthday party to tell his guests an important event of his life, Robert, a shipyard welder and a good tale-teller, first of all mentioned how lucky he was with his beloved wife, wise man that he is, and then launched into a tale from when he was a mere 27 years old.

“I worked for American Shipbuilding Company in Lorain, Ohio,” Robert began. “We built and repaired ships. One job was to repair a 30-foot hole in the outer shell of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the biggest boat on the Great Lakes.

“We replaced about 30 plates,” he continued. “About three week’s work. All the watertight welds were done, and we were finishing up welding the support stringers on the inside. There are T-beams cut to fit the inside of the watertight hull, in what is called the inter-bottom. This is a place where ballast water is pumped in and out to maintain stability when there is no cargo.

“We were not done with the job of welding the T-beams when the captain came aboard and said to remove all the welding cables from the ship. He told us had just obtained Coast Guard release to set sail, although we had not seen an inspector. The shipyard workers were taken aback because this was not normal. The Coast Guard comes on board to inspect the work before release.” Robert looked around the room at us. “And I had never experience not finishing a job before,” he said.

He had our attention.

“But of course, being hired hands, we removed the welding cables and got off the ship. The Edmund Fitzgerald left the slip and motored down the Black River to Lake Erie. That’s the last time I ever saw her. It was 1966.”

He got a far-away look in his eyes, and we all waited.

“I don’t remember where I was in 1975, when she sank, but I remember this,” he said and paused. Usually when someone’s telling a story at a party, there’s peripheral chatter, interruptions, clinking of dinnerware. Robert’s tale was so compelling, all was silent, friends leaning in with expectant looks, waiting for him to get on with it.

“As soon as I heard the news of her going down,” he said, “I got an awful bad feeling. What came to mind of course were those stringer support beams we never welded. They were never finished, at least as far as I knew. Maybe they were later, at some other place, but I doubt it. Years after she went down, when I saw the picture of her broken in two, I went right back to those un-welded T-beams. I felt sick that I could be partly responsible.

 

“There were 29 men who went down.”

 

He shook his head; we remained silent.

“A captain, you know – I’m a licensed captain – a captain has responsibilities. A captain’s training tells him that first of all you are in charge of the people on your ship. It was a storm that night, not a gale, a major storm.” He looked around at us, forever saddened, clearly understanding the loss of life more than four decades ago that in his heart he knew didn’t have to happen.

“I’d read that earlier in the day the Fitzgerald had hit bottom coming out of the harbor,” Robert went on. “My idea of what happened during the storm is that a wave caught the stern just as a wave caught the bow, she was lifted out of the water and slammed back down. . . . She was loaded, you know, and that weak link on the hull snapped. When I heard the news, I was absolutely shocked. Ships just don’t break in two.”

The exact cause of the disaster remains unknown. A slew of books, studies and expeditions have examined it. The Fitz might have been caught in the high waves of a perfect storm, suffered structural failure, been burdened with water gushing over her deck and into her cargo hatches. Maybe she shoaled, as Robert suggested, coming out of the harbor. And perhaps it was just bad judgment that she was sailing at all. There has never been an agreed-upon opinion of why the Fitz went down.

If it was human failure . . . combining that with almost hurricane-level weather made it a tragedy, that form of sickening error that happens because of human self-deception. The ship wasn’t old – she was launched on June 7, 1958, so she was a mere teenager. Her speeds were the highest, and she set seasonal haul records six times, breaking her own records. She was known as a workhorse, capable of taking a beating. She was the largest ship on the Great Lakes, and she remains the largest ship to have sunk there.

The hubris surrounding the hard-working ship was as big as the ship itself. Findings after the wreck revealed an element of complacency regarding the pride of the captain who was known to boast of sailing in bad conditions, the Coast Guard’s lack of controls in place regarding vessels on the Great Lakes in foul weather, as well as a ship given permission to sail with repair work unfinished.

Great Lakes maritime historian Fred Stonehouse, who has written the most exhaustive Fitz account to date, said, “If you talk to the guys driving the boats today, they will tell you the Fitzgerald happened yesterday. To them, it’s still very alive and real.”

From a man who once worked on the hull that eventually broke apart killing 29 men, storyteller Robert so proved on his 76th birthday that the Edmund Fitzgerald under 530 feet of water is a girl very much alive and real in his heart.

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