Remembering the “Mighty Fitz”
On this day in 1975, I was sitting in the newsroom at WFRV-TV in Green Bay, Wisconsin and the Associated Press wire machine began banging out an urgent news story. It was a cold November day and the news was that a huge cargo ship carrying iron ore was late into port and missing between the vicious waves of Lake Superior. The Edmund Fitzgerald was 730 feet long and was one of the largest ships on the Great Lakes. Within a few hours, we all knew the tragedy of this major shipping accident and the legend was born.
I was pushed into a news van and headed to Sturgeon Bay to interview the wife of a man who was on the “Fitz” and was missing. She had not seen him for 3 months. He had been working all fall, back and forth, on the lake carrying iron ore from Two Harbors, Minnesota back to the port in Whitefish Bay. This was his last trip of the year and it came in one of the worst storms of the year. She was worried and praying, but she also told me there are not many men who have ever survived in the freezing waters of the lake for very long. I could see the desperation in her eyes. She knew he was gone along with the 28 other men who made the fateful trip.
Since that day, the wreck and mystery of the Edmund Fitzgerald has fascinated me. But, I am not the only one. Gordon Lightfoot wrote and performed a popular song about it. Others have made documentaries. Shipwreck experts have attempted dozens of dives to the bottom of Lake Superior looking for parts and pieces and clues and answers. They found very few. Most experts are still not sure exactly why this huge ship broke in two and quickly fell to the sandy bottom of the lake.
But, the real mystery is what happened to the 29 men? Their bodies have never been found. The lake swallowed them. Debris was found floating to the shore for several years after the wreck, but the lake has never given up any of the men who fought the storm and lost. The experts say the men were chipping ice from the steel decks and railings in below zero temperatures, trying to keep the huge ship from getting top heavy. They also speculate that some of the doors on the cargo hold “popped” as the ship rode the choppy waves of the shallow lake and water poured in. Most believe those men fought for their lives, but the lake won and never gave them back.
So, on this anniversary, most will not remember except those who have been touched somehow by this tale. The families of the men always remember. The members of the shipping community on the treacherous Great Lakes always remember. And, I remember. The only artifact left is the ship's bell. It was retrieved on one of the diving missions. It is on display in a museum in Michigan. The only other thing that's left is the legend.