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Published: Wednesday, 11/9/2005

The mystery of the Big Fitz

THREE decades have passed now since the gales of November came early and created the legend of the Edmund Fitzgerald. But the tragic sinking of the grandest ship on the Great Lakes, and the loss of all 29 men aboard her in a fierce storm on Lake Superior, remains the lakes' most famous shipwreck, and on a broader scale, second only to the Titanic in terms of public consciousness and fascination.

Unlike the Titanic, which sank in 1912 after colliding with an iceberg in the north Atlantic Ocean, what sent the Fitzgerald to the bottom on Nov. 10, 1975, will never be known with certainty.

Speculation still abounds. She had bottomed out earlier in the day, took on too much water, and lost buoyancy, one theory says. Two monster waves overtook the ship from the stern and sent her bow beneath the waves, and she couldn't recover, goes another.

She was downbound, fully loaded, and riding low in the water. So swift was the ship's disappearance that she simply vanished from the radar screen of the Arthur Anderson, trailing the Fitz by 10 miles or so, with no time for an SOS or radio call for help.

It is the mystery that feeds the legend.

The Fitz was not a glamorous cruise liner with swimming pools, rock-climbing walls, and movie theaters. It was big long box with an engine, hauling 25,000 tons of iron ore pellets.

But it was also the biggest, longest, and fastest ship out there. At 729 feet, it was longer than Toledo's O-I building at 1 Seagate, is tall - by more than 300 feet.

The Fitz drew admiring salutes from other ships, and when the massive vessel pulled slowly and snugly through the Soo locks linking Lake Huron and Lake Superior, she was a tourist attraction.

The Toledo area has a special reason to remember the Fitzgerald and the men who died - she was Toledo's ship.

Though "Milwaukee" was painted on her stern, Toledo was virtually her home port. For years her customary itinerary was to sail from Toledo to Silver Bay or Two Harbors, Minn., load iron ore from Minnesota's Mesabi range, and bring it back to Toledo to unload.

Several members of the crew made their homes in Toledo or nearby, including the ship's veteran captain, Ernest McSorley.

The families of the 29 men have formed a bond over the years since the accident. Many of them gather every year on or near the anniversary of the sinking for a memorial service at the Mariners' Church in downtown Detroit.

This year the service will be Sunday at 11 a.m. It will mark the 30th time the Rev. Richard W. Ingalls brings together the wives and the sons and the daughters of the victims, to ring the church bell 29 times, once for each crew member, and once more for all the others who've lost their lives on these beautiful but often treacherous lakes.

The legend of the Fitz lives on for another reason - singer and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot's haunting ballad, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." It is a song which speaks to the power of the lake they call Gitche Gumee.

The Fitz lies in 530 feet of water, not far from the relatively safe shelter that Whitefish Point on Michigan's Upper Peninsula might have provided that terrible night had the ship made it. The wreckage lies in two pieces, the stern overturned, the bow section upright where it plowed into the bottom with great force and to devastating effect.

To this day, the tragedy is a painful reminder that even a ship as majestic and mighty as the Edmund Fitzgerald could not withstand the fury of nature.

We must all stand in awe, and remember those who were lost.



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