The Edmund Fitzgerald: The legend lives on 40 years later

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TOLEDO (13abc Action News) - Four decades after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a violent Lake Superior storm, the cause remains a mystery. The captain of the 729-foot ore carrier was from Ottawa Hills and 6 other crewmen were from northwest Ohio. As we mark the anniversary of the tragedy, 13abc's Lissa Guyton introduces us to a local man who not only spent time on board but he also lost a family member.

The loss was certainly nothing anyone ever expected because the Fitz was one of the best boats out on the lakes and during her career she'd sailed through all kinds of storms. In November 1975, the freighter disappeared without a call for help.

When she was christened in 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald became the biggest ship to ever sail the Great Lakes.The giant ore boat set record after record, including most iron ore carried in a single trip and most carried in a season.

Chris Gillcrist is the Executive Director of the National Museum of the Great Lakes,"They built bigger boats after her but she continued to break seasonal tonage records because she ran long and she carried a lot. She started work early in the season and she was never laid up." But on November 10th, 1975, she carried her crew to the bottom of Lake Superior.

Tom Walton is a retired Editor of The Toledo Blade. We brought tom back to the very dock where he got off the ore boat for the last time, "I remember this place well it's strange to see it again after all these years.The last time I was here was the last time I got off the Fitzgerald."

In the summer of 1963, Walton was was a porter on the ship, "I can still picture it sitting here being overwhelmed by its size. It was longer, bigger and faster than any other ship out there."

His job was to help feed the crew, keep the officers quarters clean as well as to take care of any passengers on board who were guests of the company. He still smiles when he thinks of the ship and that summer, "We were very much a tourist attraction and people held the ship in awe everywhere we went. The crew felt that, they felt a certain pride."

Walton's ties to the tragedy run deep and his sorrow lives close to the surface, "I know where it is now and I remember where I last saw it so it is emotional for me to come here for sure."

His uncle Grant Walton was an oiler on board the "Big Fitz" that fateful night. Tom was working at a California newspaper when he heard a freighter had been lost in Lake Superior. At first it was not clear which sip it was, 'It was one of those rare moments in life when you don't need to be told because you have a feeling. Indeed it was the Fitz."

Walton's father also spent time on the Fitzgerald and many other lake freighters during his career as a Chief Engineer, "Although he loved what he was doing that love evaporated when he lost his brother. He felt that loss profoundly and he retired shortly after that."

Toledo was a frequent stop for the Fitz. In fact she unloaded at this very dock a number of times during her 17 year career. Although it said Milwaukee on the stern, she was truly Toledo's boat. She was here for the last time on October 31, 1975. Ten days later she carried her crew into the history books.

The ship was just miles from the safety of Whitefish Bay when it sank.
The storm that night was one of the worst on Lake Superior in decades. Captain McSorley had radioed the captain of another freighter, the Arthur Anderson, to tell him the Fitz had a list, vent covers were lost, a fence rail was down and his radar was out but his last transmission was that they were holding their own. Soon after that, the freighter went down without a call for help.

Chris Gillcrist heads up the National Museum of the Great Lakes here in Toledo, "The Arthur Anderson was right behind her and she made it through the storm and there were other boats out there that sailed without a problem."

So what did cause the massive ship to end up on the bottom of Lake Superior? Gillcrist says there are plenty of theories. those theories range from several rogue waves to the possibility that the ship scraped bottom on shoals in the area. The storm that night was one of the worst the lake had seen in decades.

It was the largest maritime investigation in Great Lakes history but an exact cause has never been determined, "The continued interest in the Fitz is based on the public's desire to prove the unproveable. Mysteries are good, they keep people asking questions and questions are what keep our minds sharp."

Some of the remnants of the freighter are now within the walls of the National Museum of the Great Lakes, "This is an inflatable life raft, there were two of them on board, one at the bow and the other at the stern."

No one ever had a chance to make it into those life rafts and the reason why doesn't matter much to Tom and many of the other families anymore, but keeping the story alive does matter, "Those of us who sailed on the Fitz or lost someone in the tragedy I think we have a responsibility to keep the memory of those 29 men alive. That's what I'm trying to do." Tom is doing just that. He gives talks on the Fitzgerald around the region.

Coming up Tuesday night at 6, you'll hear chilling Coast Guard transmissions as the search for the Edmund Fitzgerald was underway. We also take you to a place that's given family members a chance to grieve and to remember their loved ones and you'll hear from another expert on the likelihood of ever finding out just what caused the ship to sink.

We'd like to thank the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and the Historical Collection of the Great Lakes at Bowling Green State University for some of the pictures and video in our story.