Dr. Alan Brew
15 April 2014“We Are Holding Our Own”: The Fitzgerald’s Final Voyage
It felt as though a fire was raging through his insides. The pain was so great Richard Bishop could do nothing but collapse back onto his bed and wait for the pain to slowly subside. Bishop was the head steward on the Columbia Oglebay Norton steamship Edmund Fitzgerald, but for the last few months he had been off of the ship on sick leave with a severe case of bleeding stomach ulcers. He had been receiving treatment and, just a few days earlier, he had called the company office and reported that he would rejoin the ship when it arrived in Superior, WI for a load of iron ore, but now he was not so sure. As he felt another wave of pain beginning to build in his stomach, Bishop realized he would not be able to return to the Fitzgerald that day. Little did he know that the extreme pain he was cursing would save his life.A few miles away in Superior, WI, Clarence “Ed” Dennis, an ore dock worker for Burlington Northern, admired the bright red paint and fine lines of the 729 foot ore carrier that had docked next to Dock No. 1.
“I don’t think we see this ship often,” he said to Donald Amys, the foreman in charge of his shift.
“Nope,” Amys answered, setting a musty old volume that Dennis recognized as the boat book on the break room table.
The boat book was a record of all the ships that loaded iron ore at Burlington Northern over the past several years. He opened the book and flipped to one of the pages (Hemming).
“She’s the Edmund Fitzgerald, a 729 foot straight decker. You should have no problem with the loading,” Donald said.
Ed nodded and drained the last of his coffee before walking out of the break room and ascending a staircase that led to the large open deck on top of the ore dock. From his high vantage point he watched as the Fitzgerald’s deck hands continued to remove the hatch covers in preparation for loading.
He shifted his attention from the Fitzgerald to the bright and beautiful day unfolding around him. The sky was a clear blue with not a cloud to be seen, and the temperature was very unseasonable for early November. Little did Ed Dennis know a storm, more powerful than any to ever descend upon the lake before, was gaining strength as it raced north across Iowa and Wisconsin.
The storm began life as a small low pressure system coming down from the eastern Rocky Mountains into Oklahoma and Kansas. The clockwise rotating low pressure system pulled massive amounts of hot, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and, as a result, a warm front was born and began to move north across the Midwestern states on its way to a date with destiny. As the warm front raced north gaining strength, the cold front that it would meet over Lake Superior was heading east after taking shape in the Canadian province of Alberta. If these two fronts were to meet the result would be a storm, the strength of which would be determined by the difference in temperatures between the two systems. Unknown to Ed Dennis, Donald Amys, and the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the two systems would meet in a head on collision over western Lake Superior.
When the deckhands finished removing the cargo hatches Dennis walked down to one of the lower decks of the ore dock and scanned the Fitzgerald looking for the first mate. He spotted him overseeing the hatch cover removal and waved to him. John McCarthy looked up and waved back.
“I have two-six-one-one-six tons of Taconite for you!” Dennis yelled down to McCarthy, while reading the tonnage amount from a shipping order.
“Sounds good,” McCarthy yelled back. “We are ready when you are!”
Most of the first mates that Dennis had to usually deal with while working at the ore dock were gruff, no nonsense men that usually did not want to make small chat with the dock workers, but he could tell that the Fitzgerald’s first mate was different.
The Fitzgerald’s first mate, John…