WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 5, 2005
GONE IN NOVEMBER’S GALE
JOHN J. MILLER
By Michael Schumacher
Bloomsbury, 243 pages, $24.95
THEY SAY that Lake Superior doesn’t give up her dead. It’s so cold that when bodies sink they tend to stay down, as surface-seeking bacteria go into a deep freeze. When the Edmund Fitzgerald, a massive ore freighter, vanished beneath the waves during a ferocious storm 30 years ago this month, none of the 29 men onboard were ever seen again. Yet they’ve survived in legend, thanks to Gordon Lightfoot’s popular song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and the mystique that surrounds so many nautical disasters.
Puzzles also surround the demise of the Fitz, a 729-foot behemoth that transported iron from the mines of Minnesota to steel mills along Lake Erie. In “Mighty Fitz,” a workmanlike narrative of the ship’s life and afterlife, Michael Schumacher doesn’t advance any new ideas about why “the Titanic of the Great Lakes” sank, but he does describe the roiling debates over what happened.
Just as the Warren Commission had its single-bullet theory, the Coast Guard’s Marine Board offered its “hatch closure theory,” which argued that water flooded the Fitz’s cargo hold. Others have wondered whether the ship suffered from a loose keel or hit a shoal that had not been mapped properly. Dives to the wreck site, near Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, haven’t settled anything.
What’s clear is that the Fitz’s death was fast and violent. It broke into two pieces — one of them now rests upside-down on the lake bottom — and a large middle section simply disintegrated. There was no time to abandon ship, and even if there had been, Mr. Schumacher suggests, the crewmen were so confident in their vessel that they hadn’t trained enough for an emergency.
The loss of the ship was front-page news everywhere. Some complained that the Coast Guard didn’t respond quickly enough, though it is hard to see how any rescue attempt on that dark and stormy night could have changed the fate of the Fitz and its men. The superstitious probably would agree: When the ship was christened in 1958, it took three swings before a champagne bottle shattered on the stem of the bow. This was not considered a good omen.
In his ballad, Mr. Lightfoot sang about the Fitz’s final tense moments, when “the waves turn minutes to hours.” Now the hours have lengthened into years and the years into decades — but the allure of this doomed ship and its missing men remains as strong as ever.
Mr. Miller writes for National Review.