Gordon Lightfoot's song immortalized the 29 men of the Fitzgerald, but at a strange cost. In a way, that song has obliterated the memories of hundreds of other sailors also lost in the gales of November. A myth has grown that the Fitz was the only ship lost on the Great Lakes with all hands. Far from the truth.
Eighty-nine years ago this weekend, the lakes rose up and grabbed an even dozen ships. Almost a score more were wrecked, beached, or heavily damaged by 70 to 90 knot gales. Lost in snow and waves towering more than 35 feet the crews of freighters in southern Lake Huron could only accept what fate put in their paths on what was to have been only the last trips of the season and not the last trips of their lives.
Ten times the crew of the Fitzgerald gone. Eight ships lost in an hour. One man apparently rescued by a lifeboat from another ship. Modern freighters rolled over like toys to float belly-up. Men frozen and stiff washed up on the beach like the wreckage from their ships.
Nobody wrote a song about it. Nobody rings 250 bells in a dusty old hall. Nobody remembers Sadie Black who worked in waist-deep water to feed the crew of her ship. But, the legend of the Fitz lives on.
When I think of the Edmund Fitzgerald story I think of Captain Ernest McSorley and Captain Bernie Cooper with a combined 80+ years of expereince on the lakes. Captain McSorely was on his last run of the season before returning home to see his nursing home bound wife.
There is no doubt in my mind that McSorley was well aware of the condition of his ship before it left Duluth/Superior. He knew that the ship needed some serious repairs and was due for a winter drydock/refit. When the storm began to rage McSorley probably understood better then anybody (today or yesterday) what the situation was. His ship was begining to take water while getting pounded by surf and blue water in amounts that he had never seen. He knew that shis ship was weak, and loaded with thousands of tons of ore.
His last radio transmission was in response to a question posed by one of officers of Captain Bernie Coopers ship. McSorley's response was very blunt and very descriptive "We are holding our own". Those where the last words received from the doomed Edmund Fitzgerald.
"We are holding our own"....what does that mean? I think I even know the tone of voice McSorley used. He was admitting to the only ship that could possible assist him that he was in a bad spot, was still floating and moving, but didn't know for how long.
He was scared, but couldn't show it or admit it. Once his radar was out he had to rely on crew and captain of the Arthur M. Anderson to help him drag his sinking ship into Whitefish Bay.
McSorley was the master, he had to appear fearless for the benefit of his crew, and to keep the sancity of command. Most of all he had to show that he thought the ship had a chance at making Whitefish Bay.
My hat is off to Captain Ernest McSorely and his crew, Fair winds and following seas.
Erik. That is the most sobering post on the Big Fitz that I have so far read. In effect McSorely knew they were toast (odds stacked toward foundering in high seas with rescue impossible) but could do nothing but what he did. mmmm.
If you read David Browns book "White Hurricane" it shows several captains in a similar fate. It is a outstanding book about sea faring on the Great Lakes.
What has captured me in the Fitz story is Captain Ernest McSorley. He rose from deck hand to master and commanded one of the largest ships on the lakes at the time, while breaking cargo loading records all through her career. The last I believe was in 1969.
When he left Duluth/Superior he had no idea of the storm mounting, as his ship and the Arthur M. But did know that his ship was recently granted a extention by the Coast Guard to sail and that she needed a dry docking in the worst way.
As the Arthur M. Anderson and the Edmund Fitzgerald plowed there way east on Lake Superior and eventually south, McSorley was no longer master of a ship, he was master of a floating moving hulk of steel. I have read reports saying that he (McSorely) mentioned to Captain Bernie Cooper of the Anderson that he could see the ship sitting lower in the water, that his pumps where on, but where barely keeping up (if at all). He knew his ship was sinking, but if I recall rightly never says it. He pushes and pushes for Whitefish Bay. He stands on the bridge of a doomed ship, in command of a doomed ship and there isn't much he can do about it but hope for the possibilty that his ship will make it, and if it doesn't, that the Anderson will be able to pick up the survivors and that folks will have a chance to get off.
One of the other odd things about the Fitz is the suddenness of her disappearnce. No call for help, no bodies only wreckage, and a limited amount at that. 729 feet of ship gone in seconds without so much as a peep in a world that had two way radio, a radio that was at McSorley's side for the last three days. 729 feet gone in seconds. If you think on it, the Fitgeralf was longer then the depth of the water she rests in.
As she rests now her stern is upside down and the bow is still upright. If I recall they have never explored the interiors of the ship, but the bridge is empty of bodies.
Today is indeed the day in which the Columbia Star/Oglebay Norton ship SS Edmund Fitzgerald foundered 17 miles away from the relative safety of Whitefish Bay, MI.
Captain Ernest McSorely, Chief Mate Walter McCarthy, Wheelsman Eugene O'Brien and Watchman Ransom Cundy where the only four men on board the Fitzgerald at 1900 on the 10th of November 1975 that had any idea of what was about to befall the crew of 29 and the fact that port side bridge door is open to this day speaks of the horror that befell the only men to have a birds eye view of history that was unfolding in front of them. The water logged and storm battered Fitzgerald sluggishly moved her way south. These four men watched in horror as the situation went from bad to worse. These men, the men assumed to be on 4 to 8 watch and McSorely in his rightful place are the first to watch the drama unfold and 4 men with over 100 years of sea going experience between them they witnessed all of natures fury, a fury that in McSorely's 40 years on the lakes he had never seen unleashed with such power.
These four men and there 24 other shipmates would be claimed by the "Witch of November" there bodies and there ship swallowed by the unforgiving Lake Superior who has yet to reveal the bodies or remains of the crew nor the secrets of the twisted iron castle of the Fitzgerald.
As winds roared at 90 knots plus at the Soo with seas between 10 and 25 feet, Captain Jesse "Bernie" Cooper of SS Arthur M. Anderson listened as he unknowingly at the time listened to the last words that would be ever heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald and her master, Captain Ernest McSorely. The Anderson asked "How are you doing with your problem" and McSorely's response was short "We are holding our own.".
About 15 minutes later the Anderson was slammed by what Cooper called "the three sisters" and shortly after that the Fitzgerald was obscured from radar view as she entered into a winter squall never to return. Without some much as a distress call or other radio warning the Fitzgerald and her 29 crew slipped into history and into the souls of all past, present and future Great Lakes Mariners and the hearts of thousands who have come to study her tragic ending.
The port bridge door remains opened to this day. Not forced open, but it would appear to have been opened by those inside, a silent and thought provoking message from Captain McSorely and his crew, a door (the only door) that leads into the heart of the Fitzgerald and the door that could reveal her secrets remains open and undisturbed and the crew to this day call out to all mariners of the lakes not to forget the tragedy that befell them on this cold November night 28 years ago.
I just wanted to say thank you to you all for your beautiful words. Ernest McSorley was my great-great grandfather, and there tends to be alot of finger pointing in his direction. Not too often do I find people astute enough to take a step out their own shoes to see things from the point of view of a doomed man, in charged of a doomed ship, full of lives about to be lost... So thank you on behalf of my family...