Saturday, February 13, 2010

Music: Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald / Gordon Lightfoot


(A lengthy story but worth both the read and a listen to the song)

 The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
The Song:

On 11 November 1975 the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Whitlam government in Australia.

Across the other side of the world on the evening of November 10, 1975, the freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald went down in Lake Superior with the loss of all hands. The cause for the sinking remains a mystery.

Gordon Lightfoot has written a haunting and moving song about the tragedy, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which can be heard at:

Take the time to look at the above clip, which features film of the Edmund Fitzgerald prior to sinking and afterwards.

If you enjoy songs that tell a story in the nature of an epic poem, especially a story that is true, then have a listen to the song and read the notes below which describe the loss and the background.

The Lyrics:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.

With a load of iron ore - 26,000 tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconson
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most
With a crew and the Captain well seasoned.

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ships bell rang
Could it be the North Wind they'd been feeling.

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the Captain did, too,
T'was the witch of November come stealing.

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashing
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane West Wind

When supper time came the old cook came on deck
Saying fellows it's too rough to feed ya
At 7PM a main hatchway caved in
He said fellas it's been good to know ya.

The Captain wired in he had water coming in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the words turn the minutes to hours
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd fifteen more miles behind her.

They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the ruins of her ice water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams,
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.

And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral
The church bell chimed, 'til it rang 29 times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they say, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.

The story:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee\
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.

There are 5 Great Lakes, the largest and deepest being Lake Superior and the smallest Lake Ontario. Lake Superior is the largest body of fresh water in the world. In the Ojibwe language Lake Superior is known as Gichigami, meaning “big water”. It is also written as Gitche Gumee.

Lake Superior has November storms which make the lake treacherous at that time. This had been noticed by the local Chippewa tribe who spoke of death coming from the lake with the storms in November. There was also a legend that the lake was without mercy in November and that it never gave up its dead.

There have been approximately 10,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, with deaths totalling in excess of 30,000.

Apart from the Edmund Fitzgerald, there have been a number of other disasters on the Great lakes in which weather has played a part, all in November:\
Nov. 11, 1913: eighteen ships were lost killing 254 people.
Nov. 11-13, 1940: 57 men died when three freighters sank in Lake Michigan.
Nov. 18 1958: 33 men died on Lake Michigan with the sinking of the Carl D. Bradley.
Nov. 29, 1966: Daniel J. Morrell sank in Lake Huron killing the 28 crew members.

With a load of iron ore - 26,000 tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

The Edmund Fitzgerald (aka “The Big Fitz” and “The Fitz”) was an ore freighter launched in 1958, named after the then-current president of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Edmund Fitzgerald.

Despite Gordon Lightfoot’s use of the word “ship”, all vessels on the Great Lakes are referred to as “boats”.
It had a capacity of 26,600 tons.

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most
With a crew and the Captain well seasoned.

Until the 1970’s, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the biggest boat on the Great Lakes and was labelled “The Pride of the American Flag”.

On the afternoon of Sunday, 9 November 1975 Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin with a crew of 29 and a full load of taconite pellets (iron ore).

She was under the command of Captain Ernest McSorley and was joined by a second boat, the Arthur M Anderson, a slower boat and which therefore trailed behind the Fitzgerald.

It has been speculated that Captain McSorley intended to announce his retirement after this trip. Captain McSorley was a seasoned sailor, having 44 years experience.

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ships bell rang
Could it be the North Wind they'd been feeling.

The Fitzgerald left for Detroit, not Cleveland, where the taconite pellets would be used in the manufacture of cars. She was to dock in Cleveland for the rest of the winter.

After the Fitzgerald left port, the National Weather Service issued a gale warning (wind speeds 34-40 knots) for Lake Superior, upgrading this to a storm warning (winds speeds 48-55 knots) at about 2.00am on November 10. Waves of 8-15 feet were predicted.

The captains of the Fitzgerald and Anderson discussed the weather warnings and decided to change the route by going closer to the coast of Canada, thereby getting protection from the winds.

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the Captain did, too,
T'was the witch of November come stealing.

The Witch of November is the name given to the winds that blow across the Great Lakes in November. Witches have caused numerous shipwrecks over the years, as noted above.

The winds are caused by intense low-pressure systems moving near the Great Lakes. The system is often fueled by very cold Canadian/Arctic air pulled from the north or northwest meeting warm Gulf air pulled from the south. The systems can be as intense as hurricanes. The storm that caused the loss of the Fitzgerald was equivalent to a borderline Category 1 / 2 hurricane.

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashing
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane West Wind

By the afternoon of November 10, as a result of a wind shift, the Fitzgerald and Anderson were no longer protected by land. This made larger the body of open water over which the wind was blowing, allowing the waves to become larger.

At that time the Fitzgerald reported to the Anderson “a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged and a list".

The Fitzgerald had intended making for the safety of Whitefish Bay. With visibility low due to heavy snow and with its radars out of action, the Fitzgerald was effectively blind, all the more so in that the lighthouse and navigational beacon at Whitefish Bay had also been taken out by the storm. The Anderson guided the Fitzgerald towards Whitefish Bay.

Later in the afternoon the Fitzgerald made radio contact with the Avafors, Captain McSorley reporting that the Fitzgerald "had a bad list, had lost both radars, and was taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I’ve ever been in."

The storm was massive. The Anderson reported in the afternoon of having been struck by 75 knot gusts. Waves higher than 35 feet (10m) were reported by both boats.

When supper time came the old cook came on deck
Saying fellows it's too rough to feed ya
At 7pm a main hatchway caved in
He said fellas it's been good to know ya.

It is artistic licence to recount the cook’s words in that there is no record of any such conversation or words.

There is also no basis to suggest that the crew knew that they were doomed, the indications being that the loss of the Fitzgerald was sudden and without prior indication of the likely loss. After the sinking, a severely damaged lifeboat was found and the remains of a second, indicating that no attempts were made to leave the ship. No distress flares were ever fired.

The Captain wired in he had water coming in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

At 7.10pm, the Fitzgerald made radio contact with the Anderson when the captain of the Anderson radioed that they had been hit with 2 rogue waves large enough to be seen on radar and that they were heading towards the Fitzgerald. When asked how the Fitzgerald was making out, Captain McSorley replied “We are holding our own.”

In the culture of the boats on the Great Lakes, one did not ask for help unless one knew the boat was actually sinking. In addition, it is doubtful that any meaningful assistance could have been provided.
Shortly thereafter the Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson’s radar screen.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the words turn the minutes to hours
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her.

My reading of these words is: Did God forsake the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald as it battled the raging storm, when for those men the minutes must have felt like hours? Did it not seem to those men that He had? And is it not the same for any persons in such situations, whether in a storm or other adversity? Is it not the cry of Christ on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”


They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

The cause of the sinking remains a mystery, the explanations offered including:
- the two wave theory: that the 222m long Edmund Fitzgerald was simultaneously lifted at either end by separate waves and, being unsupported in the middle with a full load, it split in two (the remains of the boat, under 160m of water shows that she split in two like the Titanic);
- the one wave theory: that the Edmund Fitzgerald was lifted in the middle by a huge wave, leaving the ends unsupported and causing the boat to break in two;
- the big wave theory: that the Edmund Fitzgerald rode up and descended the other side so rapidly that the bow was driven to the bottom and struck the bottom with such force that the ship was snapped in two.
- the big waves theory: that the Edmund Fitzgerald took on water as a result of being swamped by big waves.
- the bottoming theory: that the Edmund Fitzgerald bottomed by scraping a shoal and thereby took in water.
- the hatch covers theory: that the hatch covers were faulty or had not been properly secured.

The Discovery Channel’s analysis came to the conclusion that the Edmund Fitzgerald was hit by three rogue waves. The first two were the two reported by the Anderson but the Fitzgerald was then hit by a third which snapped her in two.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the ruins of her ice water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams,
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.

And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral
The church bell chimed, 'til it rang 29 times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

On the morning of the day following, 11 November 1975, when it was clear that there were no survivors, the Reverend Richard Ingalls of the Mariners’ Church of Detroit rang the church bell 29 times, once for each life lost. He had been minister of the church since 1965 and rang the bell each time a life was lost on the Great Lakes and their rivers.

A reporter who was covering the story heard the bells, interviewed Rev Ingalls and reported on the bells. Gordon Lightfoot read the story and wrote the song which, in turn, kept the memory of the loss alive. It also turned the wreck into a trophy for divers, to the consternation of the next of kin who consider it a gravesite.

The temperatures of the water and the depth have preserved the remains. In 1975 diving technology did not allow access except by submersibles. Improvements in diving technology meant that in 1992 a diver was able to reach the wreck and photograph it, including bodies able to be identified.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they say, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.


Since the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald there has been an annual memorial service at the Mariners’ Church where the Fitzgerald’s bell (recovered in 1995 in a dive authorised by the next of kin and replaced with a replica engraved with the names of the 29 crew) is rung 30 times, once each for the 29 crew and once for all the others who have died on the Lakes.

The purpose of the service has been to maintain prominence whilst seeking a law declaring the wreck off limits to divers.

That law was passed in 2006 by the Canadian Government, the wreck lying in Canadian waters.

As a result in 2006 the Edmund Fitzgerald memorial service was changed to a general memorial service with the bell being rung 8 times instead of 30: five times for the 5 Great Lakes, a sixth time for the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, a seventh for the St. Lawrence Seaway and an eighth time for military personnel whose lives were lost.

“I feel comfortable with this,” said Ruth Hudson of North Olmsted, Ohio, whose son, Bruce, was a deckhand on the Fitzgerald. “I think it’s time to do this. It’s time to let it rest.” (1)

(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/11/us/11shipwreck.html?_r=1&fta=y

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