July 19, 1999
Families, mariners bid farewell to S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald
Relatives lobby to make wreckage site off-limits
By John Flesher
ABOARD THE CUTTER MACKINAW -- The bell rang 29 times in a belated farewell
to the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, at the spot where the 729-foot
freighter plunged to the bottom of Lake Superior nearly a quarter-century
"Now they can rest in peace," said Ruth Hudson of North Olmsted,
Ohio, whose son Bruce Hudson perished in the Nov. 10, 1975, disaster.
The sun shone brilliantly and a slight breeze stirred the lake Saturday as
the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw bore about 200 mourners to a consecration
service at the wreck site 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point.
The weather was a sharp contrast with the monstrous gale that hurled
30-foot waves across the doomed Fitzgerald's decks.
As the names of the lost sailors were called one by one, a relative or
mariner tolled the bell and tossed a pink, long-stemmed carnation into the
icy blue water.
Two large wreaths were dropped into the lake, one donated by singer Gordon
Lightfoot, whose ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
enshrined the tragedy in folklore. Lightfoot did not attend the ceremony.
Organizers described the event as a religious exercise, the equivalent of
a graveside service.
But the timing arose largely from relatives' growing concern that
technological advances have made it easier for divers to explore the
wreckage, which lies 535 feet below the surface.
There have been a half-dozen visits by submarines and robotic cameras, and
at least one scuba team claims to have reached the Fitzgerald briefly.
The crewmen's bodies are believed entombed inside the ship or on the lake
bottom, so many relatives insist the wreck site should be off-limits. They
are lobbying the Canadian government for a legal prohibition because the
wreckage is on the Canadian side of the border.
They said the service establishes a moral -- if not a legal -- obligation
to respect their wishes.
"The world should know that this is now a sacred place," said
Robert N. Dunn, a Chicago maritime attorney and head of the organizing
Paul Spengler Jr. of Temperance, Mich., nephew of Fitzgerald crewman
William J. Spengler, said there was no justification for additional
"Let them alone," he said. "It's their grave. You just
don't violate that sort of thing."
About 50 relatives of Fitzgerald crewmen were aboard the Mackinaw on
Saturday. Also among the visitors were Great Lakes mariners and key
players in the Fitzgerald drama, for whom the journey evoked vivid
memories of the desperate rescue effort.
At the time it was launched in 1958, the 729-foot long, 75-foot wide
freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes.
On Nov. 10, 1975, the Fitzgerald left Superior carrying 26,000 tons of
taconite, bound for Detroit. Though the day was bright, a terrible storm,
with 60 mph winds and 15-foot waves, awaited the Fitzgerald. As the storm
built, the vessel's captain, Ernest McSorley, bore north across Lake
Superior, seeking the shelter of the Canadian shore and Whitefish Bay.
Luck was not with the ship or the crew, however. Both the radar system and
its backup failed. The storm took out the power to Whitefish Point's light
and radio beacon. Though the light was brought back on line, the radio
beacon was not. The Arthur M. Anderson, within 10 miles of the Fitzgerald,
received reports that the ship was listing to the starboard and of other
structural damage to the vessel.
At 7:10 p.m., McSorley delivered what was to be his final message:
"We're holding our own."
The Arthur M. Anderson lost the Fitzgerald's image on its radar screens at
7:25 p.m. The ship and crew of 29 men sank to the bottom of Lake Superior.
Several expeditions have been mounted to the wreck since then and have
been the subject of some controversy. On July 4, 1995, the ship's bell and
stanchion were recovered from where they lay beneath 550 feet of Lake
A replica of the bell, graven with the names of the crew, was left in its
place. The bell was presented to the relatives of the crew and rung 30
times once for each member of the crew and a final time in honor of all
those who have lost their lives at sea.
"I have lived with this since it happened," said Jimmie Hobaugh,
retired commander of the Coast Guard cutter Woodrush, which rushed across
Lake Superior from the safety of Duluth to join the search for the sunken
"There was never a question that we'd go. That's what we're trained
for," Hobaugh said. "Every sailor feels the loss. It's like a