Technology aims to prevent Fitzgerald-scale disasters

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
The James R. Barker, a 1,000 foot freighter that is owned by the Interlake Steamship Company is upbound on the Detroit River.

In the 40 years since the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank to the bottom of Lake Superior with 29 crew members aboard, advances in technology and weather forecasting have made shipping on the Great Lakes monumentally safer, say maritime experts, investigators and historians.

State-of-the-art radar tracks water depth and GPS systems are so sophisticated, even a person on shore can track a vessel with a smartphone or iPad. The wizardry of today’s weather forecasting lets ship personnel know the conditions they are facing days out.

Just ask Brad Newland, captain of the 1,000-foot James R. Barker of the Interlake Steamship Co. based near Cleveland.

“We have an incredible array of electronics up here that would just stagger (Fitzgerald Captain Ernest) McSorley,” said Newland, who was aboard his ship recently on a trip from Duluth, Minnesota, to St. Clair to load and unload coal. “To come up here and look at the tools that I have ... he didn’t. He literally had an empty pilot house versus what I have. He had his eyes. He had radar that didn’t work.”

“I know where I am every second of the day. I have three GPS units. He didn’t have any,” Newland continued. “Back in those days, it was just your eyes.”

Jim Scheffer, the chief of the National Transportation Safety Board’s product development division who once headed the investigative section of the agency, agreed.

“There has been, generally speaking, safety improvements in areas pertaining to the whole maritime industry internationally and domestically,” Scheffer said. “There are still very few cases today of where you have a complete loss of a vessel.”

Theories on ship’s sinking

No one really knows why the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank, but there are several theories. Among them:

■The official Coast Guard board of inquiry came to the conclusion that the Fitzgerald sank as a result of “massive flooding of the cargo hold,” saying that this likely resulted from “ineffective hatch closure.”

■Perhaps the most widely accepted of the several theories about the loss of the Fitzgerald is that the ship crossed Caribou Island’s Six-Fathom Shoal, with water as shallow as 26 feet. This contact or a near miss would damage the hull and allow water to begin accumulating inside the affected ballast tanks. Within a few minutes of passing the shoal, the Fitz’s Captain Ernest McSorley reported a starboard list, missing vents and a fence rail down.

■Another explanation is that the Fitzgerald suffered a stress fracture and broke apart on the surface from the effects of heavy seas twisting and flexing the hull in hurricane-force winds.

As a result of the Fitzgerald tragedy, Coast Guard officials now mandate more rigorous inspections inside and outside vessels and the use of depthfinders. Survival suits and life rafts must be stocked on board.

Rick Minnick, an investigator with the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Toledo, said subsequent technological advancements, such as bilge alarms to warn if the engine rooms or cargo holds are flooding, are on all the navigation systems on board freighters.

“Their pilot houses are like a jet, you could say, compared to what it was like back then,” Minnick said. “They have electronic navigation. They have radars that track their position. The charts that they use are more updated as far as depth of water.”

Weather still poses a danger

Minnick said that although there appear to be fewer freighter disasters, weather can still present grave danger as it did last month when the El Faro cargo ship went down in Hurricane Joaquin off the coast of Florida. .

“In my personal and professional opinion, things have improved to prevent accidents like the Fitzgerald from happening,” he said. “Of course, they are still going to happen just like with the El Faro, but they were also going through the middle of a very strong hurricane. It just goes to show you whether its 1975 or 2015, Mother Nature, I guess, still plays a role in the fate of these vessels.”

Still, when it comes to weather forecasting, shipping companies have everything at their disposal to see prohibitive weather coming several days in advance.

And that’s in part thanks to David Schwab, a longtime Great Lakes oceanographer and current research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Water Center, who helped develop a system that provides detailed forecasting maps on the lakes up to 10 days in advance.

“In 1975, the National Weather Service computer models for weather forecasting were Stone Age compared to what they can do now,” Schwab said. “So back then, they probably would be able to forecast how strong the winds would be in front of the storm and behind the storm but very little on the details of how fast the winds would be moving.”

A 2006 study he helped author on the weather conditions when the Fitzgerald went down had wind gusts of hurricane force at 70 mph and waves higher than 25 feet. “We showed that the Fitzgerald was in the worst possible place at the worst possible time,” Schwab said.

Today, the technology can predict specific wind speeds and wave heights almost every hour, he said, and this technology is being used everyday on the Great Lakes. “I can’t say if they will go out or not,” Schwab said of freighters going out into storms, “but what I can tell you is that they will have extremely accurate forecasts of what conditions they will encounter.”

Mark Barker, the president of Interlake Steamship Co., said crucial to keeping ships safe is “operating them in the right conditions” and not taking chances beyond “your capability.”

“We always learn. This is an industry that doesn’t say, that happened, don’t talk about it,” Barker said. “Any incident we’ve ever had we learn from that. It’s unfortunate that sometimes you have to learn from tragedy. And that’s in the case of the Fitz ... we did.”

Barker agrees that the weather that doomed the Fitzgerald would be avoided today with the state-of-the-art weather forecasting that didn’t exist when the ship went down.

“The weather, we understand it, and you end up putting the ships to anchor more than not,” Barker said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to get there but we’ve got to do it safely. Safety is of utmost importance.”

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