On 45th Anniversary, Learning From The Edmund Fitzgerald Tragedy
For most of us, the song has been around for virtually our entire lifetime, and every November 10th, we add a year to the anniversary. This year, it's 45. And it is the song from where most of us know the story of the doomed freighter, the Edmund Fitzgerald. Except to the folks in the areas around Lake Superior, this shipwreck would just be a footnote in history had it not been for Gordon Lightfoot's song and those, especially in radio, who championed it.
But thanks to search engines in 2020, you can learn something about anything. And as I click a few links, I have more questions and not as many answers as when I started.
Reading a story from Minneapolis from the 40th anniversary, I got to see the front page of the Kalamazoo Gazette from the day after the sinking. The first question that came to my mind is, why didn't anyone have their life jackets on. Certainly the odds would've been against anyone surviving in the water amid 75 mile per hour winds, but without a life jacked, one has zero change of survival. You see in the accounts, that some life jackets were found. And you also see this quote:
“Lake Superior seldom coughs up her victims unless they’re wearing life jackets. As of this time, we have no reason to believe the men of the Fitzgerald had time to get into life jackets,” Capt. Charles A. Millradt, commander of the Soo Coast Guard Station, said at the time. - From a 2015 WCCO-TV story
I also learned from this story, that you can have hurricanes on the Great Lakes, as in 1913, when one took down 19 ships or this epic one in 1996. (There's debate as to whether the actual term "hurricane" can be applied, but the damaging winds within the system are the same.)
And I learned just a few years earlier, in 1966, 28 crew members perished on the Carl Morrell. Thankfully, there have been no similar disasters on the Great Lakes since 1975.
And a hat tip to a colleague within our company who researched the Edmund Fitzgerald disaster a few years ago, and helped move the story forward, pointing out a 2010 Canadian documentary found essentially "little, if any, evidence that failure to secure the ship's hatches caused the sinking," thus absolving the crew of blame. Also, he noted Lightfoot has changed to lyric of the song to reflect that, too.
Here's some silent footage from a much happier time for the Edmund Fitzgerald, the day of it's launch in 1958.
(Detroit Historical Society via YouTube)
One final note: Late today I found out there really was an Edmund Fitzgerald. He was the president of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, the company that owned the boat.