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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Fitz's story -- 33years on!

I did not really expect to see an inspirational Fitz-remembering stuff after 33 years. But I was wrong. In Tolido Blade yesterday, their retired editor, Tom Walton, published a truly moving and personal article entitled "33 years on, the Fitzgerald story still haunts." Mr. Walton once worked on Fitzgerald as a young man and he lost his uncle and may family friends in Fitzgerald. Here's how he starts:
THIS IS a sad and special day for my brothers and me. Tonight, at a few minutes past 7 o'clock, 33 years will have passed since the great ship went down.

Thirty-three years since we lost our uncle. Thirty-three years since Ruth Hudson lost her 21-year-old son Bruce. Thirty-three years since a ship that meant so much to me personally was claimed by a force far greater than anything built by the hand of man.

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a ferocious storm on Lake Superior, vanishing without so much as an SOS, taking its crew of 29 to the bottom in Canadian waters, just 17 miles from safe harbor in Whitefish Bay. The date: Nov. 10, 1975.

Today she lies where she foundered: 46 degrees, 59 minutes north latitude, 85 degrees, 6 minutes west longitude, in 530 feet of water. Nobody survived, and no remains were ever recovered. The families consider the wreckage a gravesite.

The men died, but the legend lives.
Now the personal part:
Here we are 33 years later, and nobody knows for sure exactly what happened in those final moments. How could the fastest, strongest ship out there sink?

When the end came, it was swift and brutal - the Fitzgerald was no match for nature's fury. But she had weathered November storms before. Because the exact cause of the sinking has never been established beyond all doubt, the tragedy remains the greatest mystery in the history of the Great Lakes.

Among the 29 who were lost were my father's brother, Ralph G. Walton - known to us as Uncle Grant - and several other sailors I knew through my dad, a lifer himself on Great Lakes freighters; Ernie McSorley, the captain. Ed Bindon, the first assistant engineer. Bob Rafferty, the cook. Russ Haskell, the second assistant engineer.

I can still see their faces.
And his personal involvement with the Fitz:
My personal involvement with the Fitzgerald began in 1963, 12 years before she sank. I took time off from college to make pretty good money working seven days a week on a lake freighter for Columbia Transportation division of Oglebay-Norton out of Cleveland. I had no idea which ship I'd get. Imagine my excitement: a 19-year-old's first real job and I'm assigned to the flagship of the fleet, the queen of the lakes, as a galley porter.
A fact: there is still no one knows what really had happened:
Theories still abound about the sinking. She must have scraped a gash in her hull on a shoal in shallow water near the Canadian shoreline. No, she took on water because the hatch covers had not been properly secured. No, she was overtaken by two monster waves driven by near-hurricane force winds and lost buoyancy, the bow submerged, and she could not recover. What sank the Fitz could be any of them or none of them. Whatever it was, it happened with such ferocity and suddenness that Captain McSorley had no chance to radio his plight.
And finally :
In 2006 I visited the Maritime Museum at Whitefish Point and saw something I hadn't seen in 43 years: the Fitzgerald's original bell, retrieved from the wreckage, its brilliant shine restored. A new bell bearing the names of those who died now rests on the ship as a grave marker.

I also visited the SS Valley Camp, a former lake freighter and now a museum ship in nearby Sault Ste. Marie.

The Valley Camp displays the Fitz's two mangled lifeboats, one of which had once sat lashed right outside my cabin door. A sign at the exhibit warned against touching the lifeboat. I ignored it. I put my hand on the rail and quietly reconnected with the ship that was once my home.

When I look at photos of the wreckage, I see ladders I climbed and doors I walked through. My hope is that there will be no more photos. No more dives to the wreck. The Fitz and the men who perished on her final voyage deserve to be left alone now.
Yes, indeed "The Fitz and the men who perished on her final voyage deserve to be left alone" now and always!

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