Reading up on the Big Fitz Edmund Fitzgerald

Jul 27, 2003
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>Hi again Erik I almost forgot........the Fitz wasn't on it's last run of the year. Novemeber would be much to early to lay up the company's # 1 ore handler. If she hadn't sank she probably would have continued on till about the end of Dec I am told.

Charlie
 
Jul 27, 2003
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>Hi Erik I know I'm not qualified but I am going to disagree with you on this one. It's true a ship makes no money sitting still but it sure as hell makes none at the bottom of the lake either. I think it's one thing to sail in rough times, but to push your ship at full speed is another story. From everything I read and you can surely verify this, a Captain has a feel for his boat and can tell when it's straining. At that point he slows it down and if the straining is still present it's time to sit this one out a while. Also, the storm that sank the Fitz was being tracked for 2 days by some ships before it hit Superior. McSorley had the same opportunity to do the same but he was the kind of captain who just didn't care much about weather. He made the decision along with Captain Jessie Cooper on the Arthur M Anderson to ignore the storm warnings and sail the shortest route to Whitefish bay. By the time they realized this was no ordinary storm there were no options open to them but to run for it. McSorely drove the Fitz at full speed right up until the time he sensed he was in trouble and by then the damage was done, she was a doomed boat. All this when he knew that the Fitz was suffering from a loose keel.....amazing. Hope you and I can continue our chat about this one.....it is my favourite shipwreck.

Regards Charlie
 

Erik Wood

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Apr 10, 2001
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The Fitzgerald had clearance from the U.S. Coast Guard to sail one last trip (the fatal trip) before requiring a much needed drydocking, which would have probably put her out for the rest of the ice free season. As it was in the 1970's shipping companies like Oglebay Norton and Columbia Star (the companies that shared ownership/operation of the Fitzgerald) where suffering from a tight budget, the Fitz needed some major repairs and the Coast Guard wouldn't let her sail through the worst part of the Great Lakes shipping season, by this time the AAA class of ships like the Phillip R. Clark, the Anderson and....there is another one but I can't remember the name off the top of my head where carrying more ore and other cargo and the last cargo record the Fitz broke was 4 or 5 years previous (I posted it somewhere here, but I can't find it.)

Great Lakes shipping was in a decline during the mid 70's to the early to mid 80's and in the late 90's suffered another decline.

In fact Oglebay Norton had ships in it's fleet that could carry more cargo in the mid to late 70's, without doing more research I don't know if this was when the Fitz was still around or not.

Captains especially on the Great Lakes are usually left to there own election when making decisions on whether or not to make trips or to stop due to weather. Storm warnings in the 1970's where a joke compared to todays standard and usually incorrect as the warnings of the time where. Cooper and McSorely where receiving information (when the left Duluth) about a storm who's conditions where changing as it moved northwest, and a storm from the northwest moved southeast. Captains don't keep there job by hiding in bad weather, having said that, there is a difference been taking an educated risk and being nuts. McSorely, Cooper and the other masters that where sailing that night made an edcuated decision based on the information that they had been given and could see for themselves. McSorely left Duluth/Superior without bad weather, by the time he was half way across Lake Superior the weather had turned worse, and by the time he started his last leg south it was horrible and by this time his next port of safe haven was Whitefish Bay, which is pretty darn close to the Soo Locks.

I have met the late Captain Bernie Cooper and he had nothing but good words for McSorely. Captain Harry Anderson formly of Cleveland Cliffs and now a retired master marniner was called "Heavy Weather Harry" because of his weather ploughing ways on ships like the William G. Mather and Edward Green. This is the reality of being a sailor especially on the Great Lakes, where pop up squalls in the spring to fall and deadly November gales abound.

Suggesting that Captain McSorely didn't plot the weather or just didn't care is just plain incorrect and degrades a fine sailor with 40 some years of experience, a man who rose from scrapping paint to Master Mariner. McSorely and Cooper had several conversations before the weather had turned bad about there course of action, that is part of the reason why they hugged the north coast of Lake Superior and also why the Anderson and Fitzgerald stayed in radio and radar contact for the next couple of days.

There is no such thing as a "loose keel", either you have one or you don't. McSorely knew he had a ship that needed a refit in the worst way, and when it started taking water he also knew that he had a problem, and when he lost a vent cover, he had a real big problem. The Anderson, the Ford, and several other ships made it through that storm (including the 1929 built Mather) without problem. The Fitz foundered because she had been stressed to the max and finally couldn't take it. "The three sisters" didn't help the situation. You can't blame McSorely entirely although the ships condition was to some extent his responsibility for the loss of the Fitzgerald. Oglebay Norton has a share in it, as does the U.S. Coast Guard.
 
Jul 27, 2003
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> Hi Erik To resume our conversation about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald allow me to add this. It may be possible that the Fitz was slated for serious work at the end of the 1975 season and that is why they were going to make it her last trip. That only deepens the theory about McSorely's competence. Who would sail into a major storm full speed ahead with a full load of iron ore on a ship he knew was in need of repairs badly? It has even been written that the Fitz had a "wiggling thing" about her that bothered McSorely and when she would start to do it he would change course or reduce speed. If this is true. then he was basically afraid of his own ship and knew she was tender. All th more reason for him to be cautious of her in a storm. The "loose keel" that I talk about meant tthat she suffered form craked welds in the keelson area on more than a couple of occasions. Apparently when McSorely was informed about it the last time his comment was "all this SOB has to do is hang together for one more season and then I don't care what happens"! Pretty strong language. Please note that I don't confess to be an expert on ships or storms, I am just quoting from the things I have read about the Fitz. Oh yes by the way, the other ship that was build about the same time as the Anderson and the Philip Clark is the Cason Calloway. I have pictures of them all. Hope to hear from you again on this.

Regards

Charlie Andrews
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Who would sail into a major storm full speed ahead with a full load of iron ore on a ship he knew was in need of repairs badly? <<

Just about any master that seriously hopes to keep his job.

The ship was cleared by the Coast Gaurd, so in the eyes of the owners, there was no reason not to have a go at it. Had McSorely been unwilling to do it, I've no doubt that the owners would have wasted no time finding somebody who would.

Maritime history is filled with stories like this, and not just on the Great Lakes. Ships in far worse shape then the Edmund Fitzgerald have been allowed to continue operating and with the same results. Read up on the Marine Electric when you get the chance. It's a chilling look at how business is really done.
 

Erik Wood

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Another assumption you are making is that McSorely had some say in whether he would sail. The conditions at Superior/Duluth and on the rest of Lake Superior when he left did not hint of the horrid magnitude of the storm that would develop in the next few days.

McSorely left port with the hundreds of other ships throughout the Great Lakes and enojoyed ok weather for the first day or so. I think we need to weary of commenting on a mans "competence". McSorely knew the lakes as well as any of the sailors and knew what November could bring. His last trip of the year was to bring a load of Ore south and that is what he intended to do. When things went bad he did what any mariner could/should have done. Kept on plugging for the nearest deepwater safe haven. Unfortunatly for him he didn't make it.
 

Don Tweed

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The man plied those waters for many a year and knew the dangers of stormy times as well as calm ones.
For the same reason I will not blame the crew for the hatches, will I point a finger at McSorely.
Cptn. Cooper was right behind him trying to achieve the same goal, any port in a storm.
Just my opinion, Don
 
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Tom Pappas

Guest
Michael said, "I've no doubt that the owners would have wasted no time finding somebody who would."

I totally agree. I've often wondered the extent to which this reality influenced Smith's attitude towards icebergs.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>I totally agree. I've often wondered the extent to which this reality influenced Smith's attitude towards icebergs.<<

Hard to say. E.J. certainly wasn't the only one who took the chance though. He was just the one who got bitten by it. The inquiries make some pretty interesting reading in this regard. The pressure to keep to the schedule was enormous and all the moreso with the crack mail boats. Time was money...literally...and the customer could get pretty cranky if things didn't move as fast as possible, The owners heard about it in very short order when that happened.

After that, it's simply a question of that nasty smelly stuff rolling down hill. With lucerative subsidies at stake, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the rest.
 
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Richard K. Mason

Guest
Hello friends;

I couldn't help but give a word here about the "Fitz" since my wife and I just returned from a 5 day vacation to Michigan's upper peninsula which included a visit to Whitefish Point, as well as the Locks at Sault Ste. Marie.

While there, we were fortunate enough, thru family members, to take a ride out on the Pilot boat that takes off the pilot from the large freighters of which on the date in question, was a Bulgarian vessel of 30+ 1000 tons, 700+ feet long.

After we picked up the pilot, I had a chance to converse whith him on our way back to the dock, about the "Fitz". He's very familiar with it. He stated that for anyone wishing to learn the truth or as close to it as you can come, get a copy of "The Mystery Of The Edmund Fitzgerald", a 56 minute video produced by Southport Video of Kenosha Wisconsin. He said one major factor that few people are not aware of, is that the fierce storm that sank the "Fitz" had begun in the panhandle of Oklahoma and that the National Weather Service was lax in giving the full details of the impending storm, to the required ports and the U.S. Coast Guard about the lethal possibilities posed by it's destructive potential.

Of course, most of you may be aware of this but never-the-less, the visit to Whitefish Point was an awsome experience. I highly recommend it to anyone who has never been.

Regards, Richard
 
Jul 27, 2003
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> Hello friends Once again allow me to put in my 2 cents on the Fitzgerald. Yes the storm that took the Fitz did originate somewhere down in the Oklahoma panhandle but don't let anyone fool you into thinking it was misleading. The only part of the storm warning that wasn't quite right was what specific area it would enter the lake....either across Keewena pennisula or a little farther north. Again I stress, get the book entitled The Night The Fitz Went Down by Hugh E Bishop. It is the story of Capt. Dudley Paquette who loaded his ore boat the Wilfred Sykes right beside Fitzgerald and watched as the Fitz steamed out whlile her hatch covers were still being put in place. As he says, the Fitzgerald was known on the lakes as a boat that was always in a hurry. Paquette had been watching this storm for 2 days and knew what was coming. He elected to take the far north route and took refuge in Thunder Bay until the storm had come around and he had a trailing sea for his run down into White Fish bay. He along with his crew were listening to the Fitz and the Anderson talking as they sailed across the lake. LIstening to the comments of McSorley, he knew he was in trouble. I have also been to White Fish point and was there the year the bell arrived. It wasn't even put on display yet and I have my picture sitting beside it....a picture I very much treasure. Thanks again for the opportunity to chat about the Big Fitz.

Regards

Charlie Andrews
 

Erik Wood

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Apr 10, 2001
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and watched as the Fitz steamed out whlile her hatch covers were still being put in place.

This is common practice on the Great Lakes, especially considering that there is usually a line of boats waiting to get your spot at the dock.

McSorely and Cooper also took the northern route, by the time weather became bad it had come up to Canada and was moving south, southeast across Lake Superior. When McSorely and Cooper changed course on there last leg, they too had a following sea, this following sea is what lead to the demise (some say) of the Fitz.

Hiding in Thunder Bay was a wise choice, but Paquette also worked for a different company. Inland Steel and Oglebay Norton/Columbia Star are two different companies. The Fitz was on her last trip of the year, McSorely knew it, as did the rest of the crew. There was pressure to get this trip over.

The Discovery Channel did a wonderful show on the Fitz in which it interviewed the late Captain Bernie Cooper, and the Captain (I forget his name) of the Ford, the only other freight ship to leave White Fish Bay to assist in finding survivors of the Fitzgerald. The two of them where asked several questions including one to Cooper about the actions that he and McSorely took that night.

If I recall rightly winds at the Soo where clocked at well over 80 miles an hour (not to be confused with knots), seas where at (Coopers estimation) around 15 feet with swells to well over 20 feet, which says something for a fresh water body. To add to this waves on the lakes take on a nasty turn, there force rebounds off the shores on all sides, and waves don't always come from one direction.

This is indeed a great discussion.
 
Jul 27, 2003
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> Hi Erik Let me respond to this post as per all I have read. #1 McSorley and Cooper had quartering seas.....not a following sea....and it twisted and bent those ships especially the Fitz which was already wounded by this time. #2 It may be common practice to leave the loading dock before the hatch covers are in place but not to ring for full speed ahead and sail off with storm warnings on the air. #3 McSorley and Cooper took "a" northern route not "the" northern route. I bet if any of the two ships had been sailing alone they would have gone up and hung anchor in Thunder Bay like the Sykes did. One another's company let them talk each other into sailing the normal route. #4 Cooper himself admitted that they didn't start plotting this storm until well into the trip...by my estimation that's about 2 days too late. #5 The Wilfred Sykes and the Roger Blough both changed course and altered speed to arrive on the wreck scene to help search for the Fitz and any survivors. They were able to do this because they were damn fine masters and smart enough to be where they were suppose to be with the seas running the way they wanted them to be that night. You hear about the William Clay Ford and her crew a lot and they did a damn fine courageous act that night along with Cooper and the Anderson but let's not forget that the Sykes and the Blough were out there that night also criss crossing the area searching for any signs of survivors. They stayed on the search until they were released by the Coast Guard the next afternoon. #6 I don't think it makes any difference what company you work for. Paquette made the choice of his route himself and nobody was going to influence his decision. Like he says, a few hours delay is well worth saving having the hell beat out of your boat. No company wants a disaster like the Fitzgerald on their hands.

What a fascinating story the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is.

Regards

Charlie Andrews
 

Erik Wood

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Apr 10, 2001
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Charlie said: #1 McSorley and Cooper had quartering seas.....not a following sea....and it twisted and bent those ships especially the Fitz which was already wounded by this time.

The Offical Coast Guard report, Cooper's own testimony before the CG and later interviews say otherwise. When McSorely and Cooper headed East Southeast before the general turn torwards the Soo they had a quartering sea, until they made that South southwest turn.

Charlie said: 2 It may be common practice to leave the loading dock before the hatch covers are in place but not to ring for full speed ahead and sail off with storm warnings on the air.

I would suggest talking to a few more Captains before making that statement. In the 1970's weather information on the scale that we have it today was in it's infancy. McSorely and Cooper only knew of a approaching storm (which being November was a no brainer) they did not know of it's intensity nor it's permanent direction. I haven't seen any concrete testimony to say that McSorely left with hatches open, not clamped down I can see. Leaving your hatches open (and in the Fitz case stacked in various parts of the ship with the hatch crane up and run running) isn't safe in safe conditions, but is done frequently to keep a schedule.

Charlie said: McSorley and Cooper took "a" northern route not "the" northern route. I bet if any of the two ships had been sailing alone they would have gone up and hung anchor in Thunder Bay like the Sykes did. One another's company let them talk each other into sailing the normal route.

Cooper and McSorely left port on there own, without the badgering from there company. Each man had there own reasons, and they where not alone, they are just the most famous. The fact that the two where together does indicate to my mind, that they where aware of the possibility of bad weather and chose to go through it together for safety. Which is still common practice today. McSorely and Cooper worked for different companies, ran on different schedules and the two men had two different agenda's. This was not Cooper's last trip of the season, his ship was fine and continued to be fine. The Anderson didn't suffer from any damage (cosmetic yes, structural no) from the storm that wouldn't have been expected after a ship running a full season.

Charlie said: Cooper himself admitted that they didn't start plotting this storm until well into the trip...by my estimation that's about 2 days too late.

This shows just how little understanding there is about maritime practice and in this case spefically related to the Great Lakes. As any sailor on the lakes will tell you weather conditions and forecasts change every half of an hour. The weather reports are frequently incorrect. McSorely and Cooper didn't plot the storm until it became there conceern. Once out in open lake, there wasn't much for them to do about the storm. The Sykes sought the relative protection of Thunder Bay because her skipper didn't have the luxury of a following ship. Not to mention the Sykes skipper did what he thought was best, as did McSorely and Cooper. Both men did there job and calling into question there possible negligence in my opinion isn't what we should be taking from the Fitz's story.

Weather tracking in the 1970's was a joke compared to the fancy equipment that we have for today.

Charlie said: The Wilfred Sykes and the Roger Blough both changed course and altered speed to arrive on the wreck scene to help search for the Fitz and any survivors. They were able to do this because they were damn fine masters and smart enough to be where they were suppose to be with the seas running the way they wanted them to be that night. You hear about the William Clay Ford and her crew a lot and they did a damn fine courageous act that night along with Cooper and the Anderson but let's not forget that the Sykes and the Blough were out there that night also criss crossing the area searching for any signs of survivors.

The Sykes and Blough both returned into open lake 6 hours (am pretty sure the Coast Guard report put's it at 8) after the Fitz had gone down, and after refusing (which was there right) several requests by Coast Guard Group Soo to go and help. The Anderson made several circles after she arrived at the general location and then headed for Whitefish Bay. Once there the Coast Guard (again this can be found in the report) reported that it would be at least 18 hours before the Sundew (might have been the Acacia or the Bramble) would get on scene and at the CG's request the Anderson, later followed by the reluctant skipper of the Ford went to find survivors. The Sykes and Blough waited until the storm had died somewhat and then traveled at a slow bell.

Let me make it clear that I am not condemning the actions of the Skippers of the Sykes and Blough for not hot footing out to help. The safety of there ship and crew comes first. If they thought it was to dangerous then they had every right to stay where they where and no one should condemn them for looking out for there ship and crew. Let no mistake be made though, it was the Anderson and the Ford who left the safety of Whitefish during the worst parts of the storm and when other vessels refused to go.

My piloting skills are failing me at present but Thunder Bay isn't exactly a hop skip and a jump from Whitesfish.

Charlie said: I don't think it makes any difference what company you work for. Paquette made the choice of his route himself and nobody was going to influence his decision. Like he says, a few hours delay is well worth saving having the hell beat out of your boat. No company wants a disaster like the Fitzgerald on their hands.

Company affilation matters a lot on the Great Lakes, certain companies are known for "ordering" there skippers through all kinds of weather. The late Captain Mitch Hallon of the Paul R. Tregurtha was known for telling Interlake that he would sail when he thought it was safe for his ship and crew and not before then. The old Cleveland Cliffs fleet was known for hitting heavy weather and old "Heavy Weather Harry" was one of there pride and joy skippers.

Getting your boat beat up is part of Great Lakes life, but every skipper hopes to do as little damage as possible. That is why McSorely and Cooper headed north and stayed together, that is why Paguette and Sykes sought the shelter of Thunder Bay, that is why the Soo locks closed and why other ships got underway and some stayed in port.

But claiming that McSorely did wrong by getting underway and staying underway is doing the memory of those on the Fitz and there skipper a great discredit.
 

Erik Wood

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Apr 10, 2001
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CORRECTION TO THE ABOVE:

I was digging through my notes and couldn't find anything relating the Blough specifically to the Fitz. I do have mention of the Sykes, but the Coast Guard report (the parts I skimmed for another reason) didn't contain anything about the Blough, but only refers to her as "another vessel". Also the report doesn't give a time after Cooper called the Soo for help when the Sykes and (what I assume to be) the Blough got underway.

So I am retracting what I said about the Blough being in the CG report with the Sykes.
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A couple of other things have crossed my mind since I wrote the last post.

One is that McSorely and Cooper where not stupid. They had some 80 years of experience between the two of them. Cooper and McSorely's decision not to actively track the storm (we don't know about the Fitz nobody survived to tell us) until it approached them is seen as moronic by today's standard.

Captain Paquette and the other Captains on the lakes, where not using radar but where listening to weather reports, and reports of other ships to track the storm until it came with in radar range. This is information that I would imagine that McSorely and Cooper both had access to, and according to the Discovery Channel (don't place money on the accuracy of it) at least McSorely or cooper utilitzed. This information was in some cases third hand, was relative only to one ships position and was regarding conditions that would change drastically before it reached the Anderson and the Fitzgerald.

Weather forcasting is an interesting science, one that Captains everywhere try to prefect. I am pretty good at it, but I am no expert. I also have far more technology and the 25 plus years after the accident where weather forecasting has improved.

The mysterious part of the Fitzgerald story to me is that the Fitz disappeared in seconds without so much as a peep. McSorely was standing right by (or we think, at the least it was close by) the radio phone and he didn't even get out a call for help. I have seen estimates of 5 to 25 seconds. 729 feet gone in less then 30 seconds, wihtout so much as a peep.

I would be interested in seeing pictures of the interior of the bridge, but I don't think they exsist. One of the bridge doors is open, and it doesn't appear to be forced open, but just open like somebody opened it. This lends to the idea that at least the bridge crew knew something was happening that wasn't good. This adds a spooky side to the Fitz story for me. If somebody opened that door, whether it was McSorely, McCarthy or.....I think Ransom Cundy was the watchman that night that would mean they knew something wasn't going right and that those on the bridge had time to realize what was going on and at least open the door before the bow section completely submerged. This goes against the theory that her bow just plowed into the bottom.

What about those poor fella's down in the engine room or sleeping down in donnage?? Did they know??
 
Aug 23, 2003
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Roger Blough was not among the ships in Whitefish Bay the CG contacted. I think it was downbound at the time. Besides if the CG requested them to go out and search they probably would have, if the Anderson and Ford could have, Blough certainly could have. After all, there isn't a tougher boat on the lakes than Blough! It has a 105' beam, the same as the 1000-foot lakers, but it's only 858 feet long. So it was very stout and it also had a far more robust hull than the older-style lakers on the scene that night. It was designed to be able to withstand much more punishment than other lakers.
 

Erik Wood

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Apr 10, 2001
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Not to get the thread off topic, but I really think that the Blough is a interesting ship. She has a internal unloading system and her wide beam make her an eye catcher. She is built (for the most part) like a traditional laker but with a wider beam and a odd unloading system.

I think Charlie's was thinking she was at Thunderbay with the Sykes when the call came.
 
Aug 23, 2003
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Hmm, I thought one of the posts said something about it being in Whitefish at the time. Must've been wrong, sorry!

But I totally agree, the Blough is one of the best looking boats on the lakes! I have yet to see it in person, but I hope to someday. My late grandfather was a machinist who did much for it and even sailed on it several times to do maintenance work, including the time one of its crankshafts broke and repairs were made underway on one engine.
 

Erik Wood

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I just heard the song about the Fitz by Gordon Lightfoot and it inspired me to contiue the thread and to write a few more notes on the night that she went down.

I have spent a few years on the lakes and I can attest to the nastiness of the weather and how quickly it can change. Because Ernest McSorely, Ransom Cundy, Walter McCarthy, the wheelsman, and Chief Engineer Holl didn't survive the sinking they can't tell us what condition the Fitz was in before she went down and before she left Wisconsin.

The fact that Coast Guard cleared her for this final voyage means that at least in there mind she was in a somewhat unsafe condition and repairs that apparently hadn't been getting done, needed to be done before the ice, and before next season. What is interesting to me is that the report noting that hatch covers not properly being batted down was the reason for the sinking has been openly bashed by the maritime community. The very organization tasked with ship safety may have been the organization that let the ship sink. This is a slight stretch, after all Oglebay Norton/Columbia Star hold the ultimate responsibility for ignoring the repeated requests by Holl and McSorely to get some of the items on the ship fixed. This wasn't done, and as a result the ship foundered.

But we have to look at the much bigger picture. This is an era when shipping old style and shipping new style where butting heads, this is also when older ships where being phased out for newer ones, and Oglebay Norton/Columbia Star had plenty of new projects on there plate and putting off needed repairs on the Fitz until the seasons end makes good economical sense. The ship would be layed up anyway and wouldn't be making any money. Why not send it to the yard and not have to pay dock fee's and get the work done then. That makes some sense.

What the Coast Guard, Oglebay Norton/Columbia Star, McSorely, Holl and the crew of the Fitzgerald didn't know was that one nasty storm was headed there way.

The open door that I spoke of in a earlier post is the curious part of the accident. What did the crew know?? This would lend to the idea that the Fitz broke in half on the surface the ship lost power (hence no use of the radio phone) and the bridge crew decided to try and get out before the ship sank. A similar situation to that of the Daniel J. Morrell some 10 years earlier.

But the relative closeness of the bow and stern sections gives the theory that the ship plowed into the bottom then broke in half the stern still being on the surface, this has more weight then the above, this also collaborated by crumples on the hull at the break and the complete disappearance of a middle section. I would pay some serious money to get inside the interior of the bow section. Given the current (as of the late 1990's) state of the wreck I would suspect things would be in relatively good condition (or as good as one could expect after being on the bottom for 30 years).

If there where remains still aboard, I would imagine those on the bridge could have been flushed down the captains stairway and into his cabin or adjoining compartment, along with a lot of the loose gear on the bridge. I think what provides interest to the Fitz story is that nobody really knows what happens, because nobody survived to tell us.