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In November 1975, Lake Superior took the lives of 29 sailors. In August 1976, a song made them immortal. On November 10, 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Canadian waters during a severe storm. She had been carrying a load of taconite from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit, Michigan. Her last radio contact occurred when Captain Ernest McSorley radioed the nearby SS Arthur Anderson and reported that: “We are holding our own.” Soon after that call, the Fitz disappeared with all hands. No distress signal was ever sent. A long ship makes its way across Lake SuperiorThe Great Lakes are not oceans by any means; however, they are able to whip up storms of hurricane-force magnitude. Shipwrecks have never been an unheard of occurrence. Thus, when the Fitzgerald went down, there was no reason to think she would ever be more than a local tragedy, mourned only by those most directly affected. Who, after all, remembers the Carl D. Bradley? But then, in the summer of the following year, Gordon Lightfoot unleashed The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald upon the world. His ballad gave the Fitzgerald both national and international renown. Instead of disappearing into history with the same finality with which she’d disappeared beneath the waves, the Fitzgerald gained a name recognition at least on par with the Andrea Doria, if not the great Titanic. Despite her fame, the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a micro-historical event. Her chroniclers have mostly been regional historians, many of whom were writing in order to prove a particular theory of the sinking. A good, crisp overview that is as well written as researched has been hard to come by, at least in my experience. I’m a native Minnesotan, and I grew up summering in Duluth, visiting maritime museums, and marveling at Lake Superior’s power. I’ve read several books on this most famous wreck of the inland seas. Michael Schumacher’s Mighty Fitz is easily the best and most polished. The Edmund FitzgeraldAt less than 200 pages, this is not a book that wastes any time. It is focused, efficient, and well-paced. Schumacher opens with the Fitzgerald receiving her final load of cargo, and moves quickly to a recounting of the final voyage. He intersperses the known details of the Fitz’s last run with lively descriptions of the history of Lake Superior, her weather, and some of the other shipwrecks that litter her bottom. These asides are woven expertly into the narrative so that they do not feel like digressions at all. Rather, they seamlessly bridge the obvious factual gaps you have when a ship goes down in a blink with all hands. The Fitzgerald’s last night is told mostly from the perspective of the captain and crew of the Arthur Anderson. The two ships were sailing in close proximity (with the speedier Fitzgerald up ahead) when one of Superior’s infamous November gales came howling. In the late afternoon, Captain Bernie Cooper of the Anderson received reports from Captain McSorley that the Fitzgerald had lost vent covers and a railing. The ship had also taken on a list. Less than an hour after this report, McSorley told Cooper that he’d lost radar and wanted the Anderson to act as his eyes. At 7:10 p.m., McSorley made his grimly optimistic last observation about “holding [their] own.” Minutes later, the Fitzgerald was gone. Schumacher creates these final moments with a bit of Sebastian Junger-like flair: It all happened too quickly for anyone aboard to do anything but react to the moment. The pilothouse windows blew in, and inrushing torrents of water hurled everyone backward. The front of the ship, now angling downward toward the bottom of the lake, wavered unnaturally, sinking from the weight of the boarding water and rapidly shifting taconite pellets. At the back of the ship, the propeller continued to turn and drive the Fitzgerald forward. The middle of the ship buckled. The bow portion of the Fitz bent downward, laboring to drag the rest of the ship with it, while the stern section stubbornly held to the surface. The ship plunged to the depths in dark, frigid water, its running lights still on, every pocket of air filling with water, from front to back of the vessel…Schumacher devotes two chapters to answering the question of what caused the sinking. The focus is on the Marine Board inquiry run by the United States Coast Guard. The Marine Board eventually concluded that the Fitzgerald sank due to ineffective hatch closures. During the storm, water seeped through the cargo hatches and into the hold. This was due either to hatches that didnt seal properly, or because the crew had left some of the hatches unclamped, in order to expedite their voyage. In any event, water began to accumulate in the cargo hold, causing a gradual loss of freeboard. The ship settled imperceptibly lower in the water (which might explain by Captain McSorley reported higher waves than anyone else) until a massive wave swamped her completely. My Goodreads assistant holds up a model of the Fitz to demonstrate the ships vulnerabilities. The cargo hold was not watertight; there were numerous potential openings all along her deck; and there was always the danger of the midships section hogging The Marine Board’s findings were instantly controversial, and Schumacher does a fine job explaining the other theories that have been put forward. The NTSB, for instance, targeted the hatches as well. Contrary to the Marine Board, though, the NTSB – which viewed underwater footage of the wreck – believed the hatches had been torn off by the storm. With the hatches sheared away, the lake came pouring in. Another possible explanation is that the Fitzgerald shoaled or grounded off Six Fathom Shoal. The Fitzgerald was a very long, very vulnerable ship. This theory – supported by Captain Cooper of the Anderson – posits that the Fitz’s midsection hit the lakebed, causing it to rise (or hog, as the book’s helpful glossary calls it) while the bow and stern bent down. Hogging puts incredible physical stress on the unsupported midsection. If the Fitz hogged, it might have been precipitate to a breakup. (Investigation of Six Fathom Shoal after the wreck showed no evidence that it had been struck). I’m sure there are still dimly lit taverns and dive bars along the Great Lakes where you can get into a fight discussing these alternate scenarios. Schumacher is mostly content to simply lay out the evidence for an against. Schumacher ends Mighty Fitz by describing efforts to find and explore the wreck. Unlike Titanic, lying two miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, Fitzgerald can be reached by divers. This makes her quite accessible to potential visitors. Also unlike Titanic, the saga of the Fitz still exists in the realm of human memory. This makes her status as a graveyard far more potent than a ship that foundered in a distant epoch. Finally, the wreck did not take place in the midst of the wide blue ocean. It occurred in Canadian waters and falls within the ambit of her laws. These factors make exploration of the Fitz incredibly fraught with legal and ethical implications. The discovery of a body during an expedition ratcheted these complications up to eleven. There are aspects of Mighty Fitz that compare favorable with Junger’s The Perfect Storm. That said, there’s something about The Perfect Storm that transcends its subject matter. You do not have to be interested in shipwrecks, sword fishermen, or the Andrea Gail to enjoy Junger’s masterpiece. Mighty Fitz is tailored more towards students of shipwrecks in general, and obviously the Fitzgerald in particular. It probably has less appeal to general readers. It does have a universal lesson, though. Death always teaches us about life. The death of the “Mighty Fitz” dolefully reminds us how life can change with indiscernible rapidity from normal to bad to irrevocable.

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