Impact of the Wreck

The Edmund Fitzgerald is easily the most famous shipwreck in the Great Lakes and the wreck is considered an important article of cultural heritage in the Midwest. The wreck has remained in public memory because of the regulations that were spurred by the tragedy, controversies surrounding the wreck, and because of the hit song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.

Regulatory Result

Modern technology has greatly increased the safety of shipping vessels and prevented many accidents. Improvements in GPS systems, depth finders, and weather forecasting allows ship captains to know where they are and who’s around them at all times. In the words of captain Brad Newland of the James R. Barker “[Captain McSorley] literally had an empty pilot house versus what I have. He had his eyes. He had radar that didn’t work.” (Detroit News). These improvements, while not resultant from the wreck, have decreased fatalities on the Great Lakes. Furthermore, the sinking of the Fitz created conversations and regulations about safety standards on board vessels. The Coast Guard now encourages more rigorous inspections of vessels, the use of depth finders on board vessels, and survival suit on board for each member of the crew. Survival suits are buoyant suits designed to insulate individuals in situations where they crew must abandon ship by jumping overboard. If the crew of the Fitzgerald had had such suits, there may have been survivors of the wreck. None of these measures became mandates, but the wreck increased awareness of the dangers of the lake and the measures that can be taken to improve safety.

A man inside an orange, head to toe survival suit for sale at Air-Sea Safety & Survival

A survival suit for sale at Air-Sea Safety & Survival. Image curtesy of Air-Sea Safety & Survival


Controversies Surrounding the Sinking

The leading theory on what caused the Fitzgerald to sink is that the Fitz ran ashore on Six Fathom Shoal and was badly damaged. Some go as far as to say that the captain, Ernest McSorley, was aware of the situation and chose not to communicate the danger to the Anderson. This is largely regarded as hearsay. The division of expert opinion concerns what caused the ship to split in two. One theory is that two large waves lifted each end of the Fitzgerald and caused the bottom to collapse. The other popular theory is that the Fitz hit the lake’s floor with enough force to split the ship. There is little evidence to support either theory and it is unlikely that new information will come to light. Before the wreck was explored, many people believed that the Fitz sunk due to faulty hatch covers. This theory was disproved by expeditions, but it remains a pervasive idea today.

Heidi Brabon, daughter of oiler Blaine Wilhelm was asked to comment on the theories surround the wreck. Mrs. Brabon said, “I’m not sure if it’s important to know why it sank- it has been 30 years.  At this point I think all it would do is open wounds that are finally healing for the families.” (McCall) This is a viewpoint many are gravitating towards as expeditions to the wreck have ceased and it is unlikely that more information will come to light about the Fitz.

Should the Wreck be Explored Further?

Between 1976 and 1955, six major expeditions have attempted to survey the wreck and learn more about the sinking. The ship itself was officially located and identified in May of 1976 when a US Coast Expedition verified the location of the Fitz. This expedition resulted in hundreds of photos which the US Coast Guard would use to support their controversial theory that the Fitz sank as a result of faulty hatch covers.

The second expedition- “Calypso”- to the Fitz took place in September 1980. In this expedition, a two-man submarine dove to the Fitzgerald for the filming of a documentary about the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries. This expedition did not discover anything about the Fitz, but it did generate new photos and videos of the wreck.

A remote operated vehicle was sent to the Fitz in August of 1989 by several governmental and scientific agencies. This expedition identified an open door in the pilot house, implying that someone attempted to escape the belly of the Fitz. They also found extensive damage on the hull and the team of researchers claimed that the damage accrued could not have been caused by the storm. Below is an image of the Fitz captured during this expedition.

The Edmund Fitz on the bottom of Lake Superior as seen by the 1989 expedition.

Image curtesy of the Detroit Free Press

One of the most controversial expeditions, “DeepQuest” happened in 1994 when businessman Fredrick Shannon lead a series of seven dives to the wreck. This expedition located a body wearing a life vest. This discovery brought outcry, specifically from families of the crew, as many believe the expedition overstepped the consecration of the wreck.

The Macinnis Expedition happened in July of 1994 and the only noteworthy claim to come from this expedition was that the Fitz must have broken in two after it hit the bottom of the lake, but they failed to provide sound evidence to support this claim. Below is an image of the submarine used in this expedition.

The Delta submarine used in the Macinnis expedition.

Image courtesy of the Detroit Free Press. Captured by Fredrick J Shannon.

The final expedition to the Fitzgerald took place in 1995 when the bell was retrieved from the wreck. This expedition had the blessing of many family members of the Fitz’s crew.

Looking forward, it is unlikely that more expeditions will take place as many people, including the crew’s families, believe that wreck is a gravesite and should be left undisturbed. The sight was consecrated in a memorial ceremony on July 17, 1999.

In an interview, Miss Clark-Nabozny, granddaughter of wheelsman John Simmons, was asked if she supported further expeditions to the Fitzgerald. She said, “It is a grave site, it should stay gravesite.  I don’t think anyone diving down will learn anymore today or in twenty years.  If there were survivors, it would be different, but there weren’t, and they need to leave it alone.” (McCall)

Ransom Cundy leans against the rail of a ship.

Image courtesy of the Great Lakes Historical Society

In a similar interview, Cheryl Rozman, daughter of Ransom Cundy (pictured), simply said, “DEFINITLEY NOT!”


The Fitzgerald’s Bell

In 1995, the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald was raised from Lake Superior. This project was jointly undertaken by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, National Geographic Society, Canadian Navy, Sony Corportation, and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. After an intense restoration, the bell was placed on display in Michigan State University’s Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

The Fitzgerald's bell before restorations.

The Fitzgerald’s bell before restorations. Image curtesy of SS Edmund Fitzgerald Online

The Fitzgerald's bell on display at The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

The Fitzgerald’s bell on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Image curtesy of SS Edmund Fitzgerald Online

On the annual November 10th memorial service, family members of the deceased ring the bell to honor their loved ones. Below, Heidi Brabon takes part in the service, ringing the bell to honor her father, Blaine Wilhelm, a wiper onboard the Fitzgerald. When asked about her memories of her father, Brabon responded “I remember the summers at the lake the most.  We would all go out and barbeque and just goof off all day.  Of course, this was after we picked blueberries, but with 7 kids it didn’t take long to get enough for a pie.  Dad loved blueberry pie.  Sometimes he would also go to some of the local bars for what he called “Sunday school” but it was just an excuse to get together with his friends, which he loved.  I remember he would take us with him sometimes, and he always saved ALL of his change from the whole year and split it with all the kids when he got home at the end of the year.” (McCall) The wreck killed all 29 people on board and left lasting scars on communities across the Midwest.

Heidi Barbon rings the bell to honor her father, Blaine Wilhelm. Image curtsey of SS Edmund Fitzgerald Online

“Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot’s hit song the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was nominated for two Grammies and was #2 on the United States Billboard Top 100 Chart and held that spot for two weeks. Furthermore, the song topped three separate charts in Lightfoot’s home country of Canada. The song has remained popular for its classic 70’s soft rock style and haunting instrumentals. The song was released ten months after the sinking of the Fitz. Initially, many people who lost family to the Fitz found the song to be in bad taste; however, many families grew to love the song over time as it raised awareness of the wreck and became cathartic for many people.  

Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot. Sourced from YouTube.

“I don’t know if it [the wreck] got that much recognition originally.  Gordon Lightfoot made the song, and my sisters and I got mad and shut it off every time it played. We were very mad they [Gordon Lightfoot] did that because we were so close to Jugsy.” – Carol Ross, niece of mechanic Joseph “Jugsy” Mazes (McCall)

The song keeps the legend alive. It also tells the story. I have honestly hardly been able to listen to the song all the way through, though. Even 25 years later. Mr. Lightfoot really got to the heart of everything when he wrote that song.” – Susan Hills, niece of wiper Gordon MacLellan. (McCall)

“I had been told there was a song out there about the Fitz & I don’t like to admit it now but I said to my family & friends “How can they write about it when they don’t know what happened?” When I listened to it & really listened to it, it gripped at my heart.” – Cheryl Rozman, daughter of watchman Ransom Cundy (McCall)