Sunday, November 9, 2014

Legends and Reality: The Wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald

"The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call Gitchee Gummee.
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy."
- Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

November 10th marks the 39th anniversary of the sinking of the Great Lakes ore carrier, SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Ships have been sinking on the Great Lakes for as long as mariners have plied the waters of the big lakes. Some ships sink with only a passing mention in the news. Others become legends.

My great-grandfather, John McPherson, sailed on many small vessels on Lake Superior while working for the Booth Fishing Company which sold the abundant Lake Superior whitefish to restaurants all over the country. In 1922, he was returning to his home port in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (also my home town) on a wooden tugboat named - ironically - Reliance. The tug had taken shelter in a protected bay on the north (Canadian) shore of Lake Superior to wait out a December storm.  They had no radio or radar. They did have a wireless telegraph to keep in touch with the home office. But in stormy weather, they were on their own. They waited days while food supplies dwindled and finally decided to make a run for it when the storm abated somewhat.  The Reliance had not gone more than twenty miles when the gale-force west winds pushed them onto the rocky shoals of Lizard Islands, a mile from the Canadian shore.
The propellor sheared off on the rocks.  The captain, crew and passengers of about twenty men and one woman decided to abandon what seemed to be their foundering ship and try to use the two lifeboats to get to Lizard Island. My great-grandfather went up to the top deck to help release the life boat davits (booms that hold the lifeboat). Just as they unlashed the davits, the Reliance was hit by a particularly strong wave and lurched violently sideways. The davit that John McPherson was working pivoted around and crashed into his back throwing him off the tilted deck and into the icy water. He was most likely unconscious immediately after he was hit in the back because he never reached for the life ring that was thrown to him. He disappeared under the waves. Two other men were also lost while trying to get to the island. But to the surprise of those still on board, the Reliance did not sink. The sturdy little tug was slowly pushed by the waves towards the Lizard Islands. Finally, the remaining crew and passengers were able to escape to the island and then get to the mainland another mile beyond. All survived despite a harrowing overland journey through waist-deep snows. 

The wreck of the Reliance made headlines in newspapers both locally and nationally - perhaps as much for the dramatic survival story that followed the wreck. And then it was another footnote in the history of Lake Superior shipwrecks. 

Unlike the Reliance, The Edmund Fitzgerald would not become another sad, but brief, part of Great Lakes lore. The reason, of course, was Gordon Lightfoot's hit song celebrating the "crew and good captain well-seasoned." It is a powerful ballad that pits the great ship manned with experienced seamen against the pitiless brunt of a November gale. It makes for good music. But it isn't quite true. 

There were other ships of comparable size and age on Lake Superior that day. None of those sank. Bad luck for "The Fitz"? Multiple inquests were held by authorities including the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.  Their findings pointed to many mistakes and deficiencies that contributed to the disaster. 

The Fitzgerald and her sister ship, the SS Arthur B. Homer, had welded (rather than riveted) steel joints and both ships had reported structural failures in some of those joints. The Fitzgerald's scheduled repairs to the weld problems were canceled earlier in the year because, like the Homer, she was going to have her hull lengthened to carry more cargo. The repairs could be made at that time.

The captain of the Fitzgerald, Ernest M. McSorley, was known in Great Lakes maritime circles as a "heavy weather" captain, meaning that he would bull his way through storms rather than take shelter when he encountered severe weather. The captain of another large ship (the Wilfred Sykes) on Lake Superior that night sought shelter in Thunder Bay. Upon learning that the Fitzgerald had just been lost, The Sykes captain commented to lawyers who went on his ship that night to inform him of the sinking, that it was due to McSorley's negligence. McSorley was not held in high regard by some of his peers. 

There was plenty of blame to go around. The Coast Guard had inadequate standards for the amount of freeboard (the distance from the deck to the water) that a ship could safely maintain. There were no instrumentation or sensors for the crew to know if the cargo holds were flooding with water except that the ship would sit lower. The lower it sat, the more vulnerable it became to the thirty-five foot waves. The Coast Guard had no lifesaving personnel within any reasonable distance of the wreck site to help, even if there had been survivors. Watertight compartments were not required on Great Lakes ships prior to the sinking. Nor was relatively straightforward instrumentation such as a fathometer (to determine the depth of the water) installed on the Fitzgerald. The only way the crew could know the depth was to throw a lead line overboard (a rope with a weight on one end and knots at regular intervals to measure depth). Such readings were not going to happen in a raging storm. The nautical charts in the area of the wreck were found to be in error.   One of the shoals extended a mile further than was recorded on the charts. 

Overall, the Marine Board found that there was an attitude of complacency in the operators of Great Lakes vessels. The smaller size of the Great Lakes, as compared to the ocean, gave a false sense of security that in times of trouble, safety was never far away. Their concluding remarks begged to differ:

The nature of Great Lakes shipping, with short voyages, much of the time in very protected waters, frequently with the same routine from trip to trip, leads to complacency and an overly optimistic attitude concerning the extreme weather conditions that can and do exist. The Marine Board feels that this attitude reflects itself at times in deferral of maintenance and repairs, in failure to prepare properly for heavy weather, and in the conviction that since refuges are near, safety is possible by "running for it." While it is true that sailing conditions are good during the summer season, changes can occur abruptly, with severe storms and extreme weather and sea conditions arising rapidly. This tragic accident points out the need for all persons involved in Great Lakes shipping to foster increased awareness of the hazards which exist.

But "the legend lives on..." thanks to the power of Lightfoot's song. (It's funny that no one writes songs about airplane accidents. Maybe they are still too new in our pantheon of technology to take on the mantle of myth.) The gales of November will once again be blowing this week across Lake Superior as the first superstorm of the winter makes it way east. Let's hope that this time the "good ship[s] and crew" know enough to take shelter.

Reference from Wikipedia here.

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