Forty years after the sinking of the Fitzgerald, untold stories emerge
The day after the SS Edmund Fitzgerald went missing on Lake Superior with its crew of 29 men and a full cargo of taconite pellets, the haunting aftermath was in full bloom for those involved in the search.
Every hour, two or three times an hour, there were radio calls for the Fitzgerald and scratchy broadcasts explaining she was overdue.
If anybody sighted the ore carrier or its survivors they were to contact the U.S. Coast Guard immediately.
But the scene on the remote eastern neck of the lake belied the hope inherent in the radio communications. Everybody out there 40 years ago this week seemed to know the ship was gone.
As the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Naugatuck turned the corner at Pointe Louise on the St. Mary’s River and headed west out into the wide expanse of the lake, a young Shawn McKenzie took stock of the day. A 20-year-old apprentice quartermaster in the pilothouse of the vessel, McKenzie remembered the reflections in the glassy water that swelled like “taking a piece of sheet metal and bumping it,” he recalled.
The spinning anemometer readings of wind velocity the day and night before, on Nov. 10, 1975, had reached frightening levels, requiring lines to be tripled up at the dock lest the 110-foot Naugatuck blow away. But the morning after, there was hardly any wind at all.
“I can’t believe it’s been 40 years,” McKenzie said in a booth at a downtown Duluth diner, across the bridge from his Superior home.
The Naugatuck was based in Sault Ste. Marie and had been considered the primary rescue vessel to the tragedy that started to unfold on Nov. 10. But circumstance and mechanical hang-ups rendered that particular mission moot. By the time it arrived to the scene just after noon the next day there was vessel traffic crisscrossing everywhere, including aerial support. McKenzie even spotted a B-52 from nearby Kincheloe Air Force Base in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The Naugatuck was quickly dispatched to its own section of the search grid and came upon oil slicks and wreckage from the Fitzgerald’s weather decks — life rings and jackets, a propane tank and oars, anything that blew off the ship or would float. The collected debris was strewn about the deck of the Naugatuck over the course of three days.
The crew tracked oil throughout the Coast Guard ship on their boots. When the Fitzgerald left Superior on the afternoon of Nov. 9 bound for Detroit, it had more than 26,000 tons of taconite iron ore pellets and the equivalent of almost 1,200 barrels of fuel oil on board.
McKenzie recalled seeing the bow of a Fitzgerald lifeboat strung to the side of another impromptu recovery vessel; the lifeboat had been torn apart like an aluminum beer can and is now a museum piece in Sault Ste. Marie.
Making their way aboard a Naugatuck motor boat toward the shoreline, McKenzie and a boatswain’s mate were waved off a directive by a beach party that had also spotted a canopied canister raft washed ashore on the Canadian shore. The rafts come encased in hard plastic and are designed to pop free in the event of a ship’s sinking.
“Of course, they didn’t find anybody in there,” McKenzie said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to go in and take a look.”
The accumulated wreckage was taken to a shed in Sault Ste. Marie before making its way to a warehouse in Cleveland for the investigation that followed the wreck.
The radio transmissions both calling for the Fitzgerald and urging others to report sightings of survivors lasted until about 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 13, 1975 — 72-plus hours after the Fitzgerald had last been heard from with Capt. Ernest McSorley’s final transmission to the trailing steamer Arthur M. Anderson: “We are holding our own.”
From his booth seat on a rainy day in Duluth, McKenzie wondered aloud if the transmissions kept coming as a way to respect the families who’d lost so much.
Because after considering that “jeepers, maybe she ran aground on the Canadian shore,” as the Naugatuck made its way toward the Fitzgerald’s last known location, McKenzie needed little further evidence once he’d arrived to see the busy scene with his own eyes. A feeling came over him.
“I had the sense,” he said, “that this is a historic event.”
The main attraction
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is located in Paradise, Mich., at Whitefish Point, a spur of the Upper Peninsula that serves as a makeshift ground zero for the Edmund Fitzgerald for being only about 20 miles southeast of the wreck and serving as the resting place of the ship’s original bell.
The bell was recovered during a diving expedition in 1995 and replaced with another bell inscribed with the names of the seamen buried at the wreck, including eight men from the Northland.
Some 65,000 to 70,000 visitors have passed through the museum so far this year, a 17 percent increase over 2014.
The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is the No. 1 reason people visit the shipwreck museum and 2015’s 40th anniversary bolstered that interest, said executive director Bruce Lynn.
“People who come and visit want to learn more about the Fitzgerald,” Lynn said, “and without going overboard we try to give people that.”
Time serves curiosity well. It gives perspective and loosens restrictions on information. It also loosens tongues. Lynn likened the wreck of the Fitzgerald to a maritime version of the Kennedy assassination that came a dozen November months before it.
It’s an apt comparison in some respects. Both events produced definitive causes that have been roundly debated and, in the Fitzgerald’s case, debunked, adding to their mystery and creating a cottage industry out of speculation. For Kennedy, it’s the lone gunman theory. For the Fitzgerald, it’s the original Coast Guard theory that water entered the ship through poorly tended cargo hatches.
But for Kennedy’s assassination, there were material witnesses galore and startling film of the event. For the Fitzgerald, there were no surviving eyewitnesses to the ship’s foundering. One moment the ship was there and nine seconds later, said Mel Sando, executive director of the Lake County Historical Society, the Fitzgerald was gone.
“Nobody wanted to admit it was gone,” said Sando, who operates three museums in Two Harbors, including the 1892 Two Harbors Light Station.
Sando was a schoolboy in Two Harbors on the day of the wreck. He remembers being let out early on what started out as a balmy November Monday. Everybody knew the storm was coming, rolling up from the plains and bearing down on the Great Lakes. The kids that lived in far-out communities such as Brimson and Toimi needed to get home safely.
“It was a touchy subject around here for a long time,” said Sando, 53. “Most people who celebrate it are usually people who aren’t from around here. They have a romantic notion of it. But there were guys (aboard) from Knife River and Superior and relatives from Two Harbors. People really didn’t sit around and discuss it.”
The mystery surrounding the Fitzgerald has fueled a parade of authors willing to pinpoint and posit at her fate. Sando’s and Lynn’s museums sell a lot of books and shipwreck maps from their gift shops, where they say the most popular topic by far is the wreck of the Fitzgerald.
There are more than 20 books on the topic — so many, said Lynn, that “we’ve stopped counting at this point.”
In an effort to illuminate the wreck and its mystery on the 40th anniversary, the News Tribune reached out to three Northland men, who — were they on a radar screen — wouldn’t have been the closest blips to Fitzgerald’s history. But they weren’t off the screen either.
Concentrically and radiating outward from the wreck, McKenzie, 60, Bob Hom, 66, and Jim Woodard, 73, are something akin to character witnesses offering circumstantial evidence. They shared rare glimpses into the wreck, the captain and the ship, respectively. Of them, only Hom has previously spoken publicly about the wreck. Early on in his previous interview, Hom learned that author’s main intent was to fault Capt. McSorley and take the angle that he shouldn’t have been out there in the storm.
The author had picked the wrong man to help support that theory.
McSorley the teacher — and jokester
Hom grew up on Duluth’s Park Point, during a time when residents buried garbage in the sand on the lake side and tossed it into the bay on the harbor side. But he was always around the water and that was enough for him. Today, as a tugboat captain in the port of Duluth-Superior, he’s living out a dream.
He enjoys being out on the water in the middle of winter when it’s 20 degrees below zero and his Heritage Marine tug, in its telltale autumnal colors, is the only operating vessel in sight.
“It’s kinda fun, breaking 3 feet of ice,” he said. “It’s cold and nasty work. You either like it or you don’t. Most people wouldn’t.”
Growing up, Hom didn’t know anybody in the maritime industry. But he owned the wanderlust required to work on the water and it was later Capt. McSorley who took him under his wing.
Fortunate to have a high Vietnam draft number, Hom recalled the day he made up his mind and left his University of Minnesota Duluth classroom never to return again. He was bent on sailing and got a job aboard the Armco, working first as a deckhand and then as deck watch under McSorley. Like the Fitzgerald, the Armco was a ore carrier owned by Oglebay Norton Co. out of Cleveland.
Deckhands tie the boat when it docks. They do a lot of chipping and painting, and when the ship is underway it’s the deckhands that hose down and clean the weather decks that become filthy during loading and unloading.
A graduation to deck watch meant watching from the bow for other vessels in the fog, checking running lights and hollering “lights abright!” to the pilot house and taking regular depth soundings of the ballast tanks to see that they weren’t taking on added water. In the Fitzgerald’s final hours it’s widely believed some of her ballast tanks — eight total, located outside of and below the ship’s cargo holds — took on thousands of gallons of water, far more than pumps could handle and causing the starboard list McSorley reported to the trailing Anderson’s captain, Bernie Cooper, at 3:30 p.m., about 3 hours, 40 minutes before the wreck.
The deck watch is an obsolete job now, but when it existed one of its chores was to make the coffee in the pilothouse. It was there that Hom grew to know McSorley, finding him to be a patient — and humorous — leader of men.
Hom was a 21-year-old sailing in 1970-71, feeling like an insider among rugged and veteran merchant marine officers. The Armco’s third mate, Delmar Webster, would drill Hom on which boat was ahead of the Armco or passing it, and Hom learned to identify the ships even under the cloak of night by their light signatures.
But it was McSorley who would let Hom get behind the wheel of the then-647-foot Armco, which was later lengthened by Fraser Shipyards in Superior and ultimately renamed the American Valor.
“I didn’t know anything but I wanted to learn and he was happy to teach,” Hom recalled. “He liked you if you showed interest and I did; I really was interested.”
McSorley would take the boat off autopilot in the middle of the lakes and allow Hom to zigzag across the open water as he learned how to make the hulking vessel go straight. There’s a trick to driving a ship, Hom said, describing how a person has to put a lot of wheel on it to get it to start moving, then put opposite rudder on it to re-center it. It takes time to learn and not every captain cared to participate in the driver’s education of a deck watch.
McSorley grew comfortable with Hom. He showed the sailor from Duluth a side of himself that not many people saw. McSorley is widely noted to have been a man of few words — private and determined with an elusive personality. Hom said McSorley had a special bond with the late Webster, a “hillbilly from West Virginia by his own admission,” Hom added, who would go on to become a captain himself. It was with Webster that McSorley revealed a mischievous side.
Hom was wheeling once with Webster in the captain’s chair, which was OK if the captain wasn’t on deck, when McSorley came crawling on his hands and knees. He snuck in from behind, grabbed Webster by the ankles, yanked him from the chair and with a “Boom!” Webster hit the floor. Another time, McSorley caught Hom’s eye and made a motion to Hom to plug his ears before tossing a cherry bomb into the pilothouse in the pitch black of night, startling Webster yet again.
“Who does that?” Hom laughed, his tall frame relaxed in his living room in Superior. “The guy had a sense of humor. He liked messing with Delmar, but they were pretty good friends.”
Hom left shipping before he had a chance to follow McSorley onto the Fitzgerald. Hom was set to marry and didn’t want to endure the tough life of being away from family for long stretches.
“It’s a great job if it’s just you,” said Hom, who spent 33 years as the director of operations for the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center before retiring and finding his way behind the wheel of a tugboat.
There’s one story Hom has carried with him throughout his life and never told the author who once interrogated him about McSorley. Hom bristled at the author’s approach and didn’t want to share “the biggest bit of insight I’ve got on McSorley,” he said.
Hom told of working alongside the captain on the Armco when they passed the Fitzgerald going the other way on Lake Superior.
“McSorley looked over and said, ‘Boy, I’d hate to be on there in a big storm,’” Hom recalled. “‘They got it all worn out from years of overloading it.’ He said that five years before it sunk. He knew it was all wore out.”
Aura or imagination?
Built in 1958, the Fitzgerald launched to great fanfare as the longest and grandest ship on the Great Lakes — featuring a now old-fashioned forward pilothouse and a 729-foot hull.
“I always said she wore a work hat,” said Woodard, a retired lifelong sailor whose father, Cedric Woodard, first appears on page 31 of the Coast Guard’s Marine Casualty Report of the wreck. “That’s what her pilothouse looked like: a little bill on her hat.”
The Fitzgerald’s namesake was an insurance magnate with deep maritime roots whose son of the same name was later partly responsible for bringing a professional baseball franchise back to Milwaukee. Both men were better known for their connection to the ship.
The Fitzgerald was indeed a workhorse, breaking her own tonnage records several times, becoming a sort of Babe Ruth of the Great Lakes. Ruth sparkled but later paid the price for hard living and so did the Fitzgerald. Oglebay Norton was proud of its flagship’s capabilities and accomplishments, but to hear the sources in this story tell it, the Fitzgerald was taxed with a heavy physical toll. The ship was lost despite having only 17 years on the water.
“They were killing the boat,” Hom said. “It was designed to haul a certain amount and they kept getting the Coast Guard to increase the load line.”
“That’s one of the things that’s been mentioned that perhaps she was loaded a little bit too deep for the conditions,” McKenzie said, “but I don’t know that for a fact.”
The higher the load line, the lower a boat goes in the water. A prevailing theory nowadays is that the ship rode the peaks and troughs of 25-foot waves amid snowfall and howling winds on its way to striking the ominously named Six Fathom Shoal, puncturing the boat and creating the fatal listing as water poured into the vessel.
As the theory goes, to escape the lake’s naked wide open McSorley had wended the ship northeast but, with some failing instruments and inconsistent U.S. and Canadian mapping, drew closer than would have been recommended to Caribou Island. The shoal theory is what Cedric Woodard — piloting the Swedish vessel Avafors on Lake Superior and in contact with McSorley during the storm — believed when he died and it’s what his son believes to this day.
But, for Jim Woodard, there was always something else — an eeriness elicited by the Fitzgerald he was not afraid to talk about.
“I called her a wet ship even in the ’60s,” said Woodard, who sailed aboard the Fitzgerald in 1961-62 and again in 1974-75. “She took on water all the time and her tunnels flooded out on her; we always had to go down and pump them out. I didn’t like her then and I didn’t like her when I was on her before then. I had a gut feeling about her.”
In telling his story from his home deep in the woods between Duluth and Two Harbors, Woodard’s dining room table looked out on a foggy, misty morning. He knew most of the 29 men aboard the Fitzgerald when it wrecked and seemed most fond of third mate Michael Armagost, a precocious sailor and well-known and deeply mourned husband and father from Iron River, in Bayfield County.
On the fateful day 40 years ago, the storm descended on the Northland and it got dark in a hurry. By then, Woodard had left the Fitzgerald in favor of the Sylvania, which was itself in a pitched battle with the storm on Lake Erie, rocking so hard it was blowing off anchor before sending the vessel into safe harbor at Pelee Point in Canada, where it struck the buoy on the way in.
Around 11 p.m. word reached the Sylvania that the Fitzgerald was likely lost.
“Holy Jesus,” Woodard recalled thinking.
He had been a temporary wheelsman on the Fitzgerald when, two months before the wreck, she pulled into port ahead of the Sylvania — an older and much smaller ship with a long history of accidents.
The Fitzgerald was a frequent visitor to the Northland and Silver Bay, specifically, but it didn’t matter to Woodard. He wanted off the Fitzgerald and would leave the comforts of home and family if need be. A buddy aboard the Sylvania told him she needed a full-time wheelsman for its big 6-foot wheel. Oglebay Norton’s Columbia Transportation Division operated both boats. Woodard called management and said if they didn’t give him the job he’d quit; he could just as easily go to the labor hall and hire out on the Sylvania, he reasoned. The company obliged and, just like that, Woodard’s wish was granted.
Several weeks later and just days before the wreck, the two vessels were in port together again and Woodard recalled a harrowing last brush with the men.
“God strike me dead if I’m lying,” Woodard said, his spontaneous laughter checked. “We pulled in behind them and everybody I saw on that crew had an aura around them. That’s the honest-to-God’s truth. They glowed, just like a little brightness, you know what I mean?”
When asked if he was benefiting from hindsight and imagination, Woodard said, “I’ve never seen that since.”
A frantic call to duty
The night of the storm, with everyone fearing the worst, McKenzie and others assigned to the Naugatuck got busy in a hurry.
The boat that ran supplies and relief crews to lighthouses on Lake Superior had been in “Charlie status,” meaning it was out of service. It was getting its engines rebuilt and berthing area redone. A call to go on stand-by at 7:47 p.m. changed all that.
Nobody had been living on the ship. Crewmembers, about half with families, had been holed up in apartments in Sault Ste. Marie. Hoofing back to the ship, McKenzie leaned hard into the violent winds.
Upon his arrival at the dock, he learned the Fitzgerald was missing and presumed to be in trouble at the very least.
Dropping fast as it rode 20-foot waves, the historian Sando believes the Fitzgerald succumbed to a finishing wave that slammed the back of the pilothouse and shoved the once majestic ship’s nose into the water for a dive to the bottom more than 500 feet down.
The Naugatuck crew raced to try to meet her. They threw the bunks that hadn’t yet been reattached and everything else that wasn’t nailed down off the vessel and onto the dock. Engineers scrambled to get the two engines back together. The cook ran into town to gather a bunch of food because there had been nothing on board. Because the water tanks were laced with chlorine, 5-gallon jugs were brought aboard for drinking water. Life jackets were arranged on the berthing room floor and covered with sleeping bags for makeshift sleeping quarters.
By about 10 or 11 p.m., the Naugatuck fired its engines, but the oil pressure spiked on the starboard main and it had to be shut down. The crew was anxious to get out on the lake to help in the search; they did not yet know that the Fitzgerald and its men were gone, or that the events of that night would become known around the world and remembered for decades.
“The oil-pressure problem basically knocked us out of getting underway that night,” said McKenzie, now a Great Lakes pilot who has spent his lifetime as a merchant seaman. “We had to have two engines. We got out the next day. Hardly anybody slept.”
The crew of the Fitzgerald
The crew members of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald when it sank on Nov. 10, 1975:
Capt. Ernest M. McSorley, 63, Toledo, Ohio
John H. McCarthy, 62, Bay Village, Ohio, first mate
James A. Pratt, 44, Lakewood, Ohio, second mate
Michael E. Armagost, 37, Iron River, third mate
George Holl, 60, Cabot, Pa., chief engineer
Edward F. Bindon, 47, Fairport Harbor, Ohio, first assistant engineer
Thomas E. Edwards, 50, Oregon, Ohio, second assistant engineer
Russell G. Haskell, 40, Millbury, Ohio, second assistant engineer
Oliver J. Champeau, 41, Milwaukee, third assistant engineer
John D. Simmons, 60, Ashland, wheelsman
Eugene W. O’Brien, 50, Toledo, Ohio, wheelsman
John J. Poviach, 59, Bradenton, Fla., wheelsman
Ransom E. Cundy, 53, Superior, watchman
William J. Spengler, 59, Toledo, Ohio, watchman
Karl A. Peckol, 55, Ashtabula, Ohio, watchman
Thomas D. Borgeson, 41, Duluth, maintenance man
Mark A. Thomas, 21, Richmond Heights, Ohio, deckhand
Paul M. Riippa, 22, Ashtabula, Ohio, deckhand
Bruce L. Hudson, 22, North Olmsted, Ohio, deckhand
David E. Weiss, 22, Agoura, Calif., cadet
Robert C. Rafferty, 62, Toledo, Ohio, steward
Allen G. Kalmon, 43, Washburn, second cook
Frederick J. Beetcher, 56, Superior, porter
Nolan F. Church, 55, Silver Bay, porter
Engine room personnel
Blaine H. Wilhelm, 52, Moquah, oiler
Ralph G. Walton, 56, Freemont, Ohio, oiler
Thomas Bentsen, 23, St. Joseph, Mich., oiler
Joseph W. Mazes, 59, Ashland, special maintenance man
Gordon F. MacLellan, 30, Clearwater, Fla., wiper