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Tragedy, Bravery, November

Midweek Motivator

100_100_timby Tim Moore


Around five on the afternoon of 10 November 1975 Captain Bernie Cooper was piloting his gigantic 700 foot cargo carrier Arthur M. Andersen in thirty-foot seas. He was concerned about his sister ship traveling in tandem from Duluth, trying to make the shelter of Whitefish Bay; a knuckle of land that juts out into Lake Superior near Sault Ste. Marie. For over twenty-four hours the gale had been building to wind speeds of over 60 miles per hour churning giant menacing waves. Only nineteen more miles and the Andersen and her sister ship the Edmund Fitzgerald could count on relative calm once into Whitefish Bay. But shortly after five PM, the giant 730 foot Fitzgerald disappeared from radar. No distress call, no flares, and no hint of disaster: the “Mighty Fitz” simply vaporized.

Each year with the passing of November families and friends of Great lakes shipping crews give a sigh of relief. November is on record as the most dangerous month of the shipping season. Many who live around the Great Lakes from Chicago and Duluth to Cleveland, Buffalo and beyond have a sense for the split personality of the Lakes or as Melville referred to them “those vast inland seas.” Unlike oceans where salt water density creates less hull pressure and smaller waves per-wind-speed, the Great Lakes’ calm shimmering waters of summer turn to raging cauldrons come fall.

The Fitzgerald and Andersen left Duluth in benign weather on November 8th. A low pressure front had been forecast for Canada and the upper Great Lakes, but no one imagined its potential. Making heavy weather all day on the 10th, by late afternoon Captain McSorley radioed the Andersen informing its skipper the Fitz had lost its radar mast and was sailing blind, but “all seems okay.” Minutes later the huge ocean liner-sized ore carrier disappeared. Twenty nine officers and men with families eagerly awaiting their return began a vigil that lasted until the wreck was found days later in 530 feet of water, less than twenty miles from safe harbor. To this day it remains the most mysterious of all Great Lakes lore (which chronicles over two thousand shipwrecks since record keeping began in the 1800’s). So enigmatic was the sinking, the Cousteau family commissioned an exploration following the loss; one that produced more questions than answers though it published photographs of the broken hull home to the ghosts of the ship’s company.

Every tragedy produces its heroes. The loss of the Fitzgerald is no exception. Imagine if you will what went through the mind of the Arthur M. Andersen’s skipper Bernie Cooper on realizing his sister ship had foundered but his vessel would reach safe shelter. Yet shortly after finding safety Cooper learned the only Coast Guard ship large enough to form a rescue search for half-frozen sailors in the water was laid up for repairs and unserviceable! The ships’ owners, Northwestern Mutual Insurance, and its operators Columbia Transportation, asked Cooper if he could mount an immediate search! Cooper replied “If I do, you may lose two vessels from your fleet.” Sternly he turned to his officers and crew telling them he had agreed to sail back out into the maelstrom in search of Fitzgerald survivors in the water!

It took the Andersen twelve hours to travel eight miles out into Lake Superior beyond Whitefish point. Finally joined by a Coast Guard HU helicopter from Traverse City, the Andersen searched into the next morning but found nothing. When morning broke over the storm tossed Lake, news was breaking; a great 730 foot, seemingly unsinkable giant, had been wiped from the surface as a blackboard eraser wipes a slate clean. Lost in the disambiguation of this still controversial disaster is the vision of a fatigued captain and his crew who sailed back out into a gale in a desperate attempt to rescue fellow sailors. This is heroism worth recalling each November.


Tim Moore

Managing Partner

Audience Development Group