11.10.2005

Remembering the Fitz

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald ...

A few months ago, I got an assignment to read a new book by author Michael Shumacher, titled 'Mighty Fitz.' At the time, I knew nothing about the Edmund Fitzgerald. I'd barely heard of it. Sure, I'd heard the Gordon Lightfoot song, but up until a few months ago, it was just another song I heard on the radio, never really paying attention to the story the lyrics told ...

All that changed after reading 'Mighty Fitz,' a shipwreck and mystery I have since become fascinated with.

The story I wrote and had published a few weeks ago follows ... and make sure you check out the end of this post, where I've placed some very cool links...

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The world may never know what caused the Edmund Fitzgerald’s defeat against a November gale and its sudden plunge to the depths of Lake Superior, but Michael Schumacher’s newest book will certainly shed some new light on the mystery often called "the Titanic of the Great Lakes."

As next month marks the 30th anniversary of the legendary shipwreck and the deaths of all 29 crewman on board, Schumacher has completed his latest book, "Mighty Fitz," which examines the Fitzgerald’s productive life on the Great Lakes and her untimely demise.

"Nobody survived this thing to tell the story," Schumacher said in an interview with the Kenosha News. "Here it’s a big mystery and I think that really, really captivates people."
A 729-foot long ore carrier, the Edmund Fitzgerald left the Burlington-Northern Railroad dock in Superior on Nov. 9, 1975, with more than 26,000 tons of taconite pellets. The massive ship, which was owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, was known as one of the hardest-working vessels on the lakes.

But shortly after the Fitzgerald headed out for its routine run to Detroit, the last of the 1975 shipping season, it met a pounding storm. Losing ground, the ship’s radar cut out and she began taking on water amid mountainous, 16-foot waves.

With another huge freighter, Arthur M. Anderson, trailing it, the Fitzgerald changed course and kept communication with Anderson as they sought safe harbor at Whitefish Point, Mich. During the Fitzgerald’s last communication about 7:10 p.m. on Nov. 10, Capt. Ernest M. McSorley gave no indication his ship was in peril, telling the Anderson crew, "We are holding our own."

No distress signal was ever put out and 10 minutes later, Anderson could detect no signs of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

In "Mighty Fitz," Schumacher relays in vivid detail the story of the Fitzgerald, its 17 record-breaking years on the Great Lakes, its tragic demise, the search effort and investigation, and the speculation and controversy in the aftermath of the disaster.

A St. Joseph High School graduate, Schumacher is the author of six books including acclaimed biographies about music legend Eric Clapton, poet Allen Ginsberg and folk singer/activist Phil Ochs.

But writing about the Fitz hit closer to home for Shumacher, living on the shore of Lake Michigan and having a lifelong fascination with the Great Lakes. Among 25 documentaries he’s written, three have dealt with the mysterious shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Schumacher also was a fan of Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian folk singer who wrote and recorded "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." The song reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts in November 1976 and earned a Grammy nomination for song of the year.

Schumacher dedicated "Mighty Fitz" to the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald and to Lightfoot "for giving us a song to remember them by."

"That’s what caught everybody’s attention," Schumacher said. "The Fitz was the largest to sink but there were shipwrecks with more loss of life, more times over. The Lightfoot song really made people aware of this shipwreck."

By writing "Mighty Fitz," Schumacher set out to not only keep the topic alive, but provide a more complete account of the events surrounding the Fitzgerald than any other author has done.

He succeeds in his approach by detailing all angles of the story in gripping and dramatic proportions, starting with a Nov. 8, 1975, weather report that warned of two low-pressure systems colliding to form a storm over the central states and upper Great Lakes.

"History dictated the forecast in the vernacular, if the two systems met, all hell was going to break loose," Schumacher wrote.

The book’s initial chapters continue with accounts of the ship’s Nov. 9 loading process and the launch of the fateful voyage, woven in between personality sketches of the crewman living on the Fitz and the tragic details of other ships that succumbed to the fury of the Great Lakes.

The drama only increases as Schumacher pieces together the final hours of the Fitzgerald in blizzard-like conditions.

Sailing against heavy seas and wind gusts of 100 mph, the ship had suffered some damage. It was leaning on one side and its radars were inoperable.

Still, in conversations with the Anderson and other nearby ships, McSorley gave little indication the Fitz was in danger.

"Part of this stoicism was pure McSorley and part was longstanding tradition," Shumacher wrote in the book. "From long experience, McSorley was rightfully confident in his ability to master a ship through a storm, and though he had been cautious enough to admit the damage to his ship to the Anderson and ask for its help, it was not in his nature to cave under pressure. He would bring in his ship, even if he faced hell and high water."

But somehow the ship did go down -- fast and likely without warning.

The second half of Schumacher’s book begins with the search for the Fitzgerald wreckage and the eventual discovery of the ship split apart with its stern lying upside down in 530 feet of water.

The book also tackles the hearings, testimony and controversy that followed the Fitzgerald tragedy, from the court battles over divers being allowed to visit the wreckage to the disagreements over how the Fitzgerald sank. In their investigations and official reports, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Lake Carriers Association all differed on the reasons for the Fitzgerald’s sinking.

The writing process was the most intense of any of his books, Schumacher said. He had to endure a few dicey interviews with the family members of lost crewman and witnesses who had either been burned by the press or were exhausted of talking about the 30-year-old mystery. Schumacher also sat down for rare interviews with two of the three surviving members of the Marine Board of Investigation.

Schumacher did an extraordinary amount of his own research, spending hours in libraries and buying any Fitzgerald or Great Lakes book he could find. He also spent the beginning of the year at the Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., sifting through the agency’s huge vault of reports and transcripts.

"I stood at the photo copy machine there for a couple days and just copied these documents," Schumacher said with a chuckle. "… It was to the point where it was the only thing I was thinking about. I was dreaming about the Fitz, literally dreaming."

So it’s not surprising that Schumacher has his own theories about how the ship sank. He believes the Fitzgerald’s sinking was a combination of the ship hitting ground somewhere, thus cracking its hull, and taking in a catastrophic amount of water on its deck, forcing one or more of the ship’s hatch covers to cave.

Shumacher does not believe, as others have cited, the Fitzgerald broke apart on the surface of Lake Superior.

Although, no theory has been disproved, which is why the Fitzgerald shipwreck has captured so many imaginations.

"Nobody knows why it went down," Schumacher said. "It’s going to be one that really catches your attention and it’s the most modern of the big ore carriers to go down. There’s no reason it should have sunk."

More on the Fitz:
a 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'
a Minnesota remembers the Edmund Fitzgerald (From the St. Cloud, Minn., Times, which also includes a cool interactive feature)

1 comment:

ItsTJoint said...

Man, every year in Minnesota we get some Edmucd Fitzgerald stories. It's definitely an interesting tale.