Families seek protection for Edmund Fitzgerald wreck

(This story appeared in the New York Times on November 11, 2006)
For a Shipwreck of Legend, the Spotlight Dims a Bit

Published: November 11, 2006
DETROIT, Nov. 10 — Thirty-one years after it occurred and almost as long since it was immortalized in a popular song, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald will finally recede into the ranks of other Great Lakes maritime disasters at an annual memorial service here.

The rector of the Mariners’ Church of Detroit, as well as families of the 29 men lost on the ship, say it is time to de-emphasize the wreck, particularly now that Canadian officials have put it off limits to divers, a goal of those who have helped keep the legend alive. So the service — this year’s is being held Sunday — will now remember all of the countless mariners lost on the lakes, as it once did, rather than just those on the Fitzgerald, as it has for three decades.

“I feel comfortable with this,” said Ruth Hudson of North Olmsted, Ohio, whose son, Bruce, was a deckhand on the Fitzgerald. “I think it’s time to do this. It’s time to let it rest.”

The Edmund Fitzgerald, a 729-foot ore carrier that was one of the largest freighters on the Great Lakes, left Superior, Wis., for Detroit on Nov. 9, 1975, and sank suddenly in a storm the next day. Most students of the wreck think the ship, having taken on water, nose-dived under a large wave before plummeting to the bottom. A nearby freighter reported that the Fitzgerald’s lights simply disappeared in the driving snow. There was no distress signal.

The Mariners’ Church, just a few hundred yards from the Detroit River and the passing freighters that still carry raw materials from the north to the steel mills of the Midwest, has been dedicated to sailors since 1848. When it became certain on the morning after the Fitzgerald went down that no one aboard had survived, the rector, the Rev. Richard Ingalls, quietly unlocked the bell tower and tolled the church bell 29 times, once for each man lost.

Mr. Ingalls, who died this year, had presided over the church since 1965. “It was his tradition to ring the bell every time a life was lost on the lakes,” said his son, the Rev. Richard W. Ingalls Jr., who succeeded him as rector.

An Associated Press reporter who had flown into Detroit to help cover the story of the wreck happened to hear the tolling of the bells that morning, Mr. Ingalls said. The reporter knocked on the door of the church, interviewed the rector and filed an account that was published in newspapers all over the country and read by the Canadian singer and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot.

The popular 1976 folk ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which Mr. Lightfoot wrote and recorded, has helped keep the memory of the sinking alive. It has also turned the wreck into a coveted trophy for divers, to the consternation of Fitzgerald sailors’ families, who consider it a gravesite.

The ship lies 500 feet deep. When it sank, that was too far down for divers to reach. But technology improved, and in 1992 a diver photographed the wreck, including some bodies. Mr. Ingalls explained that at that depth, there is no animal or plant life in Lake Superior, nor any sunlight or current. “The water is a constant 34 or 35 degrees,” he said. “It is essentially a deep freeze down there. The men can be identified.”

Three years after that dive, another, this one sanctioned by the families, pulled up the Fitzgerald’s bell, replacing it with one engraved with the sailors’ names. The families also fought for a law declaring the wreckage off limits. The annual memorial service, which often drew wide news coverage, was a part of that fight, keeping the spotlight on the wreck, Mr. Ingalls said. This year the government of Ontario adopted a law protecting the site, which lies in Canadian territory.

A memorial service dedicated specifically to the Fitzgerald sailors was held Friday night at the home of the ship’s bell, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Mr. Ingalls said he supported the museum’s continuing its Fitzgerald service, over which he has presided in the past.

But at the Mariners’ Church, “we felt it was time to return to our traditional service,” he said.

There have been over 10,000 wrecks in more than 300 years of shipping and exploration on the Great Lakes, Mr. Ingalls noted, adding that his church was dedicated to all sailors.

“The crewmen of the Fitzgerald,” he said, “will not be the last to lose their lives on the Great Lakes.”

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