Book examines mystery surrounding sinking
By Norman N. Brown
"Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald." By Michael Schumacher. Bloomsbury. 243 Pages. $24.95.
The story of a shipwreck is usually interesting for its details about the cause of the loss. In "Mighty Fitz," Michael Schumacher tells the story of a shipwreck that arouses interest for the opposite reason.
Almost nothing is known about what caused the Edmund Fitzgerald, a 729-foot bulk cargo carrier, to break in two and sink -- or vice versa -- during a violent storm on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975.
The date, place and almost precise hour of the sinking are known, but Mighty Fitz, as the ship was called, issued no radio message of impending disaster and was not within sight of any other ship when it sank.
Its radar failed, but the Fitz had been a blip on the radar screen of another iron ore-carrier, the Arthur M. Anderson, shortly before it went under. The first hint of tragedy came when that blip disappeared.
The captains of both ships had been in radio-telephone contact before the sinking and had discussed the severity of the storm they were experiencing.
The master of the Fitz reported the failure of his radar and the general situation aboard his ship to the captain of the Anderson, concluding, "We are holding our own."
All 29 crew members were lost with the Fitz and no bodies were recovered. This is not unusual because bodies do not decompose quickly in frigid waters and do not generate the gasses that might cause them to surface.
Schumacher tells how the hull of the Fitz was eventually located on the lake's floor, 530 feet below the surface. It was broken in half, its bow upright but its stern upside down.
The book also provides details about the surveys and viewings of the wreck, and the formal investigations conducted by maritime organizations in the U.S. and Canada (the Fitz sank in Canadian waters). It also notes how vicious, swift and unpredictable Great Lakes storms can be.
There has been much disagreement about why the ship broke. Some suggested the keel was weakened by wear and that either the "hogging" or the "sagging" of the very long hull, caused by the spacing of the gigantic waves, had induced the split.
Another view held that the ship had taken on water in its cargo hold through improperly secured hatch covers, had become heavy forward and took a nosedive to the bottom. In this case, the thought was that the break occurred during the underwater descent.
The ship was not even 20 years old and was one of the largest of its type in use on the Great Lakes. It featured state-of-the art technology and its crew were seasoned and experienced sailors.
Schumacher concludes by saying that no definite cause for the loss has been identified and describes the current legal status of the wreckage.
Not one photograph of the Edmund Fitzgerald or its crew appears in the book, which would have enhanced the story considerably.