Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy casts long shadow

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Whitefish Point — The SS Edmund Fitzgerald wasn’t the deadliest shipwreck on the Great Lakes, didn’t occur during the worst storm and wasn’t shrouded in the biggest mystery.

But it’s the one we remember.

And the crew’s families remember better than most.

They lost fathers. They lost sons. And they never got a chance to say good-bye.

Even after 40 years, the tragedy hasn’t lessened its grip on their hearts.

John O’Brien was 17 when his father, Red, died aboard the ship Nov. 10, 1975.

“Anyone who loses their dad at that age knows that’s a big hole,” he said last week, growing emotional. “No one could ever fill it.”

Marilynn Peterson, left, Debbie Gage, Bonnie Kellerman and Rick Church lost their father, Nolan Church, in the storm. Rick said his dad never thought such a thing could happen.

Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of the day the ship, traveling from Wisconsin to Detroit, disappeared in a storm on Lake Superior.

The next day, sonar from a search plane spotted the freighter on the bottom of the lake. All 29 men aboard perished.

One doesn’t have to be a sailor or Midwesterner to know about Big Fitz. Its story is known far from the shores of the Great Lakes.

Its sinking launched a dozen books. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula draws curious visitors from all over the country.

“I find it amazing. The interest in the shipwreck never seems to wane,” said Bruce Lynn, museum executive director.

Much of the interest comes from a 1976 song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a Top 10 hit that radio often replays this time of the year.

It’s bolstered by a mystery. After four decades, experts still don’t agree on why the ship sank.

But the families didn’t need a pop song to learn about the tragedy. Their lives were defined by it.

All it takes for them to remember is a stiff wind in November.

At one time, the Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes and, though it lost that title, it still set records year after year for carrying more cargo than other freighters.

The trip that began Nov. 9, 1975, was a routine run, one the Fitzgerald had done many times in 17 years.

The laker was lugging 26,100 tons of iron ore pellets from Superior, Wisconsin, to a steel mill on Zug Island.

The trip came near the end of the shipping season, when the weather could turn dicey. But the sailors weren’t worried.

The ship’s advanced technology and sheer size were more than a match for the elements, the crewmen told relatives.

Porter Nolan Church joked the Great Lakes didn’t have a hole big enough for the 729-foot Fitz to fall into, said his son, Rick.

“He just never thought anything like that could ever happen,” Church said.

Nolan Church, 55, didn’t become a sailor until his 40s. Watching freighters pass his home in Silver Bay, Minnesota, he thought it might be a fun job, said his children.

And he turned out to be right, they said. He loved his time on the water.

By contrast, Bob Rafferty had grown weary of the life.

After 30 years, he stopped sailing full time and just filled in for others, said his daughter, Pam Johnson.

The Fitzgerald’s cook was on vacation and his replacement, who had an ulcer, decided just before the fateful journey that he wasn’t healthy enough to make it, Johnson said.

That left Rafferty, 62, a jovial bear of a man from Toledo who loved to cook.

Johnson has reconciled with the series of circumstances that placed her dad on the ship.

“I believe in a higher power,” she said. “God just needed my dad home more than I did.”

Storm moves south, north

When the Fitzgerald left the city of Superior, just south of Duluth, Minnesota, on the afternoon of Nov. 9, the forecast wasn’t unusual. A storm was supposed to pass south of Lake Superior.

The Fitzgerald hugged the northern coast but the storm moved north as well, according to a Coast Guard investigation.

Conditions worsened until the following afternoon, when the waves grew to 30 feet and gusts up to 96 mph.

At 3:30 p.m. the Fitz lost a fence railing and two vent covers, according to the investigation. The listing ship was taking on water that two bilge pumps tried to discharge.

Forty minutes later, the ship lost both radars, according to books about the wreck. It was sailing blind.

“The Fitz was out of options,” said a 2005 book by Michael Schumacher, “Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

“It rode perilously low in the water, helpless against the relentless onslaught of the storm,” Schumacher wrote.

The ship slowed so the SS Arthur Anderson, a freighter following behind, could get close enough to provide direction, said the book.

The Anderson spotted the Fitzgerald on its radar and directed it toward Whitefish Point.

At 7:10 p.m., Fitzgerald Capt. Ernest McSorley told the Anderson, “We are holding our own,” according to the Coast Guard investigation.

Ten minutes later, the Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald when it sailed into a snow squall. When the squall lifted, the Fitz was gone.

In Moquah, Wisconsin, a neighbor told Lorraine Wilhelm the 10 o’clock news had said something about the Fitzgerald being missing.

Wilhelm’s husband, Blaine, 52, was an oiler on the ship.

Wilhelm turned on the TV but had to wait for the end of a high school hockey game before the news came on, said her daughter, Heidi Brabon of Portage, Michigan.

“I remember being so scared,” said Brabon, who was 12 at the time.

Her mother was on the phone most of the night, trying to find someone who knew something.

Like other crew families, the Wilhelms held out hope against hope that their loved one had survived.

Maybe he had swum to safety. Maybe the ship had been knocked ashore. Maybe he had been plucked from the water by the Coast Guard, and was now drying off on its ship.

After getting the grim news, the family didn’t tell Brabon’s sister, who was about to give birth. The baby was born four days after Wilhelm’s death.

This is a memorial to the late Oliver J. Chapeau, 3rd assistant engineer on the Edmund Fitzgerald, at the home of his daughter Debbie Felder.

No bodies recovered

None of the sailors’ bodies was ever recovered from the wreck.

Among them was Oliver “Buck” Champeau, 41, a third assistant engineer from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

At 13, Champeau had quit school to help raise his four brothers and sisters after their father died.

Years later, when his brother Jack prepared to fight in Vietnam, Buck came to his bedroom the night before the deployment.

Buck also had fought in a war, in Korea. His stocky, muscled frame had a Marine Corps tattoo on his left forearm.

Buck promised that, if anything happened to Jack overseas, he would come get him. It’s part of the Soldier’s Creed. More than that, it was a fraternal compact.

After the Fitzgerald shipwreck, Jack wanted to do the same thing. He wanted to bring his brother home.

But officials decided against the herculean task of retrieving the bodies.

“It still has a significant effect on our lives,” Champeau said about the tragedy.

The failure to recover his brother’s body gnawed at Champeau until 1995 when, with the crew families’ blessing, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society retrieved the bell from the sunken ship.

In lieu of his brother, the presence of the 200-pound, bronze bell helped give Champeau some closure.

‘That was my dad’

The families of the crew sometimes get together to mark anniversaries or special events related to the ship.

In 1999, the shipwreck site was consecrated during a ceremony on Lake Superior attended by a dozen families.

Among the attendees was Bruce Kalmon, whose father, Al, was second cook.

“That was my dad. He was the only one I had, and I’m sorry he’s gone,” said Kalmon, who was 11 in 1975.

He scrawled a message on the side of a rock and, standing in a Coast Guard cutter, dropped it to his father 530 feet below.

Returning to Detroit, the cutter was passing through the Soo Locks between Lake Superior and Lake Huron when it was joined by another ship.

The crew of the freighter, looming high above the families, were all waving.

In a twist of fate, it was the Arthur Anderson.

Song keeps memory alive

At first, families of the crew hated “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

They resented that Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot was profiting from their loss.

But many have changed their mind.

They like that the song, which has sold a million copies in the U.S., has kept the sailors’ memory alive.

Marilynn Peterson, a daughter of Nolan Church, said she was heartened the song will help her children and children’s children learn about him.

“It’s part of history,” she said. “My grandkids will learn about him although they never met him.”

Preparing for her mother’s funeral in 1993, Peterson and two sisters were on their way to a florist in Two Harbors, Minnesota, when the song came on the car radio.

The women began to cry.

Peterson said it was like receiving a message from their dad that their mom was now with him.


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Mystery endures

Through the years, a number of theories have been posed about what caused the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald:

Faulty hatch covers: As waves washed over the deck, water streamed into the cargo hold, pushing iron ore pellets toward the bow, which caused the rollicking ship to nose-dive. In its investigation, the Coast Guard listed this as the probable cause of the wreck.

Shoals: The Lake Carriers Association, a trade group, believed the ship ran over shoals while hugging the Canadian coast to avoid the storm. The shoals punctured the ship, which caused it to slowly begin sinking as it sailed into the brunt of a storm.

Rogue wave: Some authors who have written about the wreck believe the ship was struck by a quick succession of three larger-than-normal waves, which overloaded the deck with tons of water.

Source: Detroit News archives