Families of Edmund Fitzgerald victims remember

Oralandar Brand-Williams

As bells tolled 11 times inside the Mariners’ Church in downtown Detroit, family members of some of the victims of the Nov. 10, 1975, wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald mourned but recalled happier times for their loved ones.

Sisters Elaine Riippa Sespico and Lonnie Turner journeyed from Ashtabula, Ohio, to Detroit to join more than 250 in the church at the foot of the Detroit River to remember their 22-year-old brother, Paul Michael Riippa, during the annual Great Lakes memorial service for the ill-fated freighter.

The service was broadened to remember victims from all disasters and tragedies on the Great Lakes.

Sisters Lonnie Turner, left, and Elaine Riipa Sespico, both of Ohio, reminisce about their brother Paul Michael Riippa, who was 22 when he died on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

“It was such a devastation,” Sespico said Sunday after the service. Paul Riippa was a deckhand on the Edmund Fitzgerald when it went down in a November gale in Lake Superior. He had taken the assignment to earn money for college. He was studying nursing.

Twenty-nine lives were lost when the freighter, carrying ore, sank.

Turner said her brother was an athlete and played football in high school. She said he looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger. She said Paul Riippa was attending Wilmington College when he died. He was planning to attend Kent State University.

Paul Riippa

“We hope people won’t forget. We hope people will always remember the Edmund Fitzgerald and the 29 lives that were lost,” said Sespico.

Sespico said of her younger brother: “We loved him very much. ... He was such a good boy and we will always remember him. He loved God. He loved Jesus. He loved everybody.”

Sespico and Turner, who were joined by other relatives at the church, recalled Sunday the horrendous days that would pass before they learned that their brother would not be coming home.

A bell that was sounded to honor sailors who have died on Michigan's waters, sits silent following the ceremony.

“We waited anxiously for quite a few days for him to come back because we always knew he would be one to survive,” said Sespico.

She said she talks to her children all the time about her brother.

“We talk about him to keep his memory (alive),” she said. “We don’t want to forget.”

Sunday’s service featured the traditional “Mariners Hymn.” The Rev. William Fleming, pastor of the Mariners’ Church of Detroit, rang the bells and asked churchgoers to remember the victims of the Fitzgerald as well as other lives lost the Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and waters connected to the Great Lakes.

Fleming asked for prayers for 30,000 lives lost in 10,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes in the past 300 years.

The service also recognized those who have served in the armed forces.


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As the bell tolls for lost sailors, Grant Miller, 2, covers his ears as his father, Matthew Miller, of Dearborn, listens to the ceremony.