30 Years, 29 Lives
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Friday, 11 November 2005 17:18

As the winds picked up across Michigan Thursday, Great Lakes sailors surely cast a wary eye skyward and thought of the Fitz. Thirty years ago this morning, as the first gray streaks of dawn appeared over Lake Superior, sailors and maritime authorities had to acknowledge the awful truth that the mighty freighter Edmund Fitzgerald was gone, crashed to the bottom in a storm of hurricane force the night before.

The 729-foot freighter was bound for Detroit with a full load of iron ore when it went down, taking the lives of all 29 men aboard. The legendary sinking, immortalized in song, remains grim testament to the power of the Great Lakes, especially at this time of year. The most devastating storm in Great Lakes history also occurred in early November, in 1913, wrecking 40 ships and killing 235 seamen, most of them on Lake Huron.

Watching the great freighters glide by, always a popular pastime in these parts, it is hard to imagine them besieged by wind and water. The largest of them, including the Fitzgerald, are far longer than the depths of the lakes they travel.

But the sailors know, and their families know, too, that in a matter of hours a smooth, blue lake can become an angry mix of elements that threaten the mightiest vessels. They know that the waves that washed over the Fitzgerald were estimated to be 35 feet tall. They know that even in good weather, navigation requires extra care when shoals are involved. And they know how cold the lake waters can be.

In the 30 years since the Fitzgerald went down, weather forecasting and emergency responses have greatly improved on the lakes. So has the navigation, communication and survival gear aboard the freighters.

But the lakes will never be tamed. The sailors know. And their families know. The Edmund Fitzgerald reminds them.

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