November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald, a Great Lakes freighter, was sailing on Lake Superior on its way to deliver over 26,000 ton of iron ore pellets from the port in Superior, Wisconsin, to an iron works mill in Detroit, Michigan. She sank in a ferocious November storm, only an hour from the safety of Whitefish Bay on the far eastern end of the lake.
I remember the incident because, at that time, I lived in Superior and worked in its twin port city of Duluth, Minnesota. One of the crew members was a brother of a good friend of mine. My friend’s mother-in-law owned a local convenience store about a block from where I lived. The next evening as news got out, he was minding the store for her. When I heard, I walked over to talk to him. He was holding out hope for his brother but none of the ship’s twenty-nine crew members were rescued; their bodies never recovered.
At the time she was built, the Fitzgerald was the longest ship on the Great Lakes, 729 feet, one foot shorter than the allowed length in the locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway. She was luxuriously outfitted for a Great Lakes freighter and was the flagship of the Columbia Transportation fleet. She was called the “Pride of the American Side” and the “Titanic of the Great Lakes.” She was also a record-setting workhorse, yearly breaking her own records for seasonal tonnage and individual loads.
November gales on Lake Superior, called “witches” by sailors, are notoriously perilous, blowing up suddenly and intensely. They can bring hurricane force winds and whip up ocean-like waves. On the night the Fitzgerald sank, sustained winds were near sixty miles per hour and wind gusts of nearly ninety miles per hour were recorded.
The Edmund Fitzgerald was joined on the ninth at Two Harbors, about twenty miles up the lake from Duluth-Superior, by the Arthur M. Anderson, another iron ore carrier. The captain was Jessie (Bernie) Cooper. At mid-afternoon on the tenth, Captain McSorley of the Fitzgerald called Captain Cooper to report that he was having problems. He asked the Anderson to stay near until they reached Whitefish Bay. The Fitzgerald slowed down to allow the slower Anderson to close the seventeen-mile gap between them. Later in the day, the Fitzgerald’s radar malfunctioned and the Anderson relayed navigational information by radio. Sometime after 7:10 pm, the Anderson lost both radar and radio contact with the Fitzgerald and Captain Cooper began contacting the Coast Guard to voice his concern. The Anderson reached the safety of Whitefish Bay before 9:00 pm. The Fitzgerald was not to be seen.
The Anderson had reported waves as high as thirty-five feet. At one point, the crew felt a “bump”, felt the ship lurch, and watched a monstrous wave engulf the vessel from astern. Her bow was driven down into the dangerous sea. A second, larger one followed. Other ships captains were radioing that they wish they had not left port. The Anderson had lost one lifeboat earlier in the storm.
At 9:00 pm, the Coast Guard radioed the Anderson to ask if the Captain Cooper would be willing to take his vessel back out into the storm to begin a search for the Fitzgerald. The Anderson would be heading directly into the wind and waves, perhaps able to make one or two knots per hour. The conditions were treacherous, to say the least. Captain Cooper said, “Well, I’ll go back and take a look, but God, I’m afraid I’m going to take a hell of a beating out there . . . I’ll turn around and give ‘er a whirl, but God, I don’t know. I’ll give it a try.”
The Anderson turned out to be the primary vessel in the search. With the ship pounding and rolling badly, the crew of the Anderson discovered the Fitzgerald’s two lifeboats and other debris but no sign of survivors.
The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald has captivated people’s imaginations because it is shrouded in mystery and has eluded explanation. It has been immortalized in popular music by Gordon Lightfoot. It was the subject of a ballyhooed, 1990’s television documentary by Jacques Cousteau’s son who used the famous Calypso to make the first manned dive at the site.
The bravery and sacrifice of Captain Cooper and his crew has never been part of the story. They were very unsung – no, unnoticed – heroes.
Several people have been quoted as saying something to the effect that true character is doing what is right when no one is watching. No one has paid much attention to what Captain Cooper and his crew did, but they showed true bravery and true concern for their fellow sailors.
But, I am sure that God noticed.
Scripture says, “The eyes of the Lord roam to and fro in the earth, that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His” (2 Chronicles 16:9).
Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.”
Certainly, if our words, then our actions, as well.
In Closing, I say:
Lift High the Cross