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Published: Wednesday, 2/8/2006

Fitzgerald wreck site gets added protection

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Ruth Hudson has never been able to see the spot where her 22-year-old son died.

A crewman on the Edmund Fitzgerald, Bruce Hudson died when the lake freighter sank in a 1975 storm. His grave site, his mother said, is enveloped in the icy waters of Lake Superior - 530 feet below the surface in Canadian territory.

Mrs. Hudson said she is content visiting the shores of Whitefish Point, Mich., and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum where the ship's bell is permanently on display.

Because of a recently approved amendment to the Ontario Heritage Act, others will have to be satisfied with just a visit to the bell as well.

The new regulation limits access to the Edmund Fitzgerald - whose sinking was chronicled in song by Gordon Lightfoot - as well as the Hamilton and the Scourge, both merchant schooners that sank in Canada's portion of Lake Ontario in 1813. Anyone found diving on the sites without a permit from the Canadian government faces a $1 million Canadian fine, or nearly $867,000 in U.S. money.

"We're just really, really happy that we can be at peace about the ship, about the Fitzgerald," Mrs. Hudson said. "It's protected now."

The largest freighter on the Great Lakes when it was launched in 1958, the 729-foot Fitzgerald went down without a distress call off Whitefish Point during a severe storm on Nov. 10, 1975. The last communication from Capt. Ernest McSorley of Ottawa Hills radioed to the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson shortly after 7 p.m., reported, "We are holding our own."

All 29 men on board died, including Captain McSorley and six other northwest Ohio men.

In 1995, a dive team retrieved the Fitzgerald's 200-pound bronze bell, swapping for it a duplicate that was identical ex-cept for the engraving of the lost sailors' names.

Canadian law has to date protected the ship from those interested in salvaging its artifacts. The amendment, approved in late January, puts a 500-meter, or 547 yards, perimeter around the ship. Anyone found going within the zone would be fined, said Carole Drouin, senior communications adviser for the Canadian Ministry of Culture.

Although received with great relief by family members of the Fitzgerald's crew, the new regulations have caused concern among members of the scuba diving community. Divers are particularly unnerved by the inclusion of the Hamilton and Scourge, because of fears that the government will find reasons to add more ships to the list of protected sites.

The two ships, which sank in a storm while anchored together, were used by the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812. Of the 72 crew members aboard both ships, 53 perished in the depths of Lake Ontario.

The titles for the ships were transferred from the U.S. Navy to Canada in 1979. Resting at about 300 feet, the two ships are much more accessible to advanced divers.

Ms. Drouin said the stricter laws won't affect most recreational divers because of their depths. She said the Canadian government thought more protection was needed because technology could eventually make the sites more accessible.

Guy Lepage, of Canada's Ministry of Culture, called each of the ships "watery graves" and compared them to cordoned off cemeteries. "In this case, with the three of them, it's not worth the possibility that something could happen to them," he said.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-724-6076.



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