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Michigan State University Press
29 Missing: The True and Tragic Story of the Disappearance of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald / Edition 1

29 Missing: The True and Tragic Story of the Disappearance of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald / Edition 1

by Andrew Kantar


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29 Missing: The True and Tragic Story of the Disappearance of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald / Edition 1

On November 10, 1975, SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a giant freighter, sank with its entire crew of 29 aboard, in one of the most violent storms ever witnessed on Lake Superior. In 29 Missing, Kantar tells the "Fitz's" story from the christening in 1958 as the largest ship on the Great Lakes to the expedition in 1995 to recover the ship's bell in what proved to be a moving memorial to the lost crew. Using information from government investigative reports, the book provides a dramatic hour-by-hour account of what transpired during that terrible voyage, including dialogue from actual radio transmissions between the Fitzgerald and the Arthur Anderson, the freighter that followed behind the Fitz. 
     In his passionate retelling of the story, designed primarily for young adults, Kantar provides the facts leading up to the disappearance, detailing the subsequent expeditions to the wreck site as well as the leading theories about the sinking that have been debated by maritime experts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870134463
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 06/28/1998
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 50
Sales rank: 324,453
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Andrew Kantar is Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Ferris State University. His first book, 29 Missing: The True and Tragic Story of the Disappearance of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, was designated a Michigan Notable Book. He has also written Black November, a history of the Carl D. Bradley, the largest ship to break up and vanish during a raging storm on Lake Michigan. Kantar served as a Fulbright Scholar in Norway for two years.

Read an Excerpt

29 Missing

The True and Tragic Story of Disappearance of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

By Andrew Kantar

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 1998 Andrew Kantar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87013-446-3


"Graveyard of the Great Lakes"

Few places in this world possess the rugged beauty and natural majesty of the Great Lakes. And few other lakes can stir such terror in the hearts of skilled and experienced sailors. Spanning the border of Canada and the United States, from east to west these are Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior.

In all the time that shipping records have been kept, the Great Lakes have claimed more than 6,000 vessels! The largest, deepest, coldest, and, according to some, most frightening and foreboding of these lakes is Lake Superior. Stretching 350 miles, it is the largest body of fresh water in the world. It averages 500 feet deep and is 1,333 feet deep at its deepest spot. It is nearly always cold. Even in summer it reaches only 40 degrees. As late as May you can see the ice just beginning to break up in the harbor in Duluth, Minnesota! Situated atop the north-central United States, Lake Superior is indeed an imposing body of icy fresh water, spanning one Canadian province (Ontario) and three states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan). Superior is so big that one of its islands is a national park — Isle Royale, 44 miles long.

In keeping with its massive size, Superior's mammoth storms are legendary, claiming the lives of hundreds of sailors who have been cast into its numbing depths. The first loss on record was in 1816, a British schooner, ironically named Invincible. In all, over five hundred shipwrecks have been documented on Lake Superior, thought by many to be the roughest of the Lakes. Although other lakes lose more ships, they also carry more traffic than Superior. Lake Superior can be dangerous at any time of year, but history has revealed that the month of November can be a particularly perilous time to venture out. In November, cold Arctic air collides with warm southern winds, resulting in early winter storms, when high winds and monster waves rage across all of the Great Lakes.

There is good reason why sailors are in awe of the lake they call "Old Treacherous," especially in November, and it goes beyond superstition and folklore. A good deal has been written, for example, about the November storm of 1913. On that day twelve ships went down, another sixteen washed ashore, and when it was all over, 254 sailors were dead. Six years later, the gales of November raged on November 22, 1919, when the steamer Myron sank on Lake Superior off Whitefish Point, Michigan. The only survivor was Captain Walter R. Neal. Amazingly, the following year, eight of the Myron's crew washed ashore at Salt Point — encased in ice! Before the funeral, the horribly contorted, frozen bodies had to be thawed before a roaring fire. The November terror on Lake Superior struck again in 1940, when a frightening storm sank five vessels and killed 67 men. History has shown November to be a cruel and unforgiving time to face the challenge of Lake Superior.

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, the last ship to sink in Lake Superior, was also lost in November. By some accounts, the storm of November 10, 1975 was the fiercest ever witnessed on the lake. On this night, the Edmund Fitzgerald, a huge ore carrier, went down amid freezing snowy winds and towering waves. There were no witnesses and no survivors. The ship's wreckage still rests at Superior's bottom, over 500 feet below the surface. The shipwreck occurred near Whitefish Point, part of an 80-mile stretch known as the "Graveyard of the Great Lakes" that has claimed 320 sailors' lives. A great deal of mystery has surrounded the Fitzgerald tragedy. This is the tale of that terrible voyage.


The Fitz

On June 8, 1958, in front of over ten thousand spectators, a gigantic freighter was christened the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald by Mrs. Edmund Fitzgerald, wife of the president of a corporate giant — Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company of Milwaukee. The ship's name seemed appropriate. Edmund was a banker, but he came from a seafaring family. Mr. Fitzgerald's grandfather, John, had skippered several ships on the Great Lakes, as had John's five brothers.

The launching of this great ship was a special event. The Edmund Fitzgerald, built by Great Lakes Engineering in River Rouge, Michigan, and owned by the Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, represented the largest vessel on the Great Lakes, and it remained so until 1971. In fact, at the time of its christening, it was the largest ship ever to enter fresh water. At a staggering 729 feet long she was the length of a towering skyscraper and weighed in at 13,632 tons! This workhorse had engines that could generate 7,000 horsepower, and although it may not seem very fast to us as we drive our cars today, for a freighter she was swift, capable of carrying her heavy loads at a speed of 16 miles per hour. The builders, owners, and crew could not have been more proud of this majestic freighter known as "The Pride of the American Flag." It has been said that the crew was so fond of the Fitz, as they called her, that they chased away seagulls from the deck for fear their droppings would disgrace her.

She cost more than eight million dollars to build but proved her worth on many occasions. The Edmund Fitzgerald soon acquired a reputation not only as an efficient hauler of iron ore but also as a Great Lakes record setter. The Fitz soon held the record for most tons of iron ore hauled in one season, most iron ore carried on one trip, and most tons of ore hauled through the famous and busy Soo Canals, the international passage that connects Lake Superior with Lake Huron. When other ships fell short of her stellar performance, the Fitz simply broke her old records and set new ones. When she sailed Lake Superior, it was like a mythological meeting of two giants — one man-made and the other natural. Each was the largest and most powerful force of its kind on earth. Eventually there would be a struggle for supremacy.

Although she was a freighter, an ore carrier, as they are called, the Edmund Fitzgerald was equipped with some surprisingly comfortable accommodations. These were reserved for passengers who were special guests aboard this giant of the lakes. For these occasions, the ship was furnished with two plush staterooms that could accommodate four passengers. These guest cabins included tiled baths, plush carpeting, and leather swivel chairs. In addition, there was a luxurious lounge where the guests received excellent service from friendly stewards. At one point during the journey, the Captain would invite the guests to a special candlelight dinner, where uniformed stewards would attend to their needs.

Of course, the accommodations for the crew were not nearly as luxurious, but they were certainly considered adequate for a ship of this type. There were two deckhouses, forward and aft. The forward deckhouse, located toward the front, or bow, of the ship, contained crew accommodations and the pilothouse. The aft deckhouse, located near the rear, or stern, of the ship, provided more crew accommodations as well as the mess room (dining area). The sailors could travel between the two deckhouses by way of port (left side) and starboard (right side) access tunnels that were located below the upper deck. These connecting tunnels were quite a walk, considering that this ship was longer than two football fields!

In case of emergency, the Edmund Fitzgerald was equipped with all of the necessary electronic and lifesaving devices. The communication equipment included three separate marine FM radiotelephones. Two of these relied on the ship's power, and, in case of a power loss, the third was powered by rechargeable batteries. In addition, she was equipped with a 100-watt AM radio. In case of a power loss, they also had a 50-watt, battery-powered AM radio.

Interestingly enough, the Edmund Fitzgerald had no electronic means by which they could measure lake depth; it had no depth gauge or fathometer. To get these measurements, they had to go through a rather primitive manual process of dropping a knotted line over the vessel's bow (front). A piece of lead was attached to the line's end. The depth was then calculated by simply counting the number of knots in the line after the lead touched the bottom.

Commercial vessels that sail the Great Lakes are required to undergo periodic inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Edmund Fitzgerald was no exception. Of course, lifesaving equipment was inspected, and it was noted that the Fitzgerald had two 50-man lifeboats and two 25-man inflatable life rafts. Because the ship had widely separated sleeping quarters (in the forward and aft deckhouses), one raft was situated forward and the other was aft. This way, it was thought, in an emergency all members of the crew would have equal access to the lifesaving equipment. Finally, as required by the Coast Guard, the vessel contained 83 life preservers. Unfortunately, on the terrible night of November 10, none of this lifesaving equipment was used. The entire crew perished. No bodies were ever recovered.


The Final Journey

In 1975 the Fitzgerald, at 17 years of age, was still considered to be relatively young. After all, many ships on the Great Lakes were two or three times her age, and yet the Fitzgerald had already made quite a name for herself as a record breaker. Six different times she set and broke the record for a season's haul!

On October 31, just ten days before her final departure of the season, the Edmund Fitzgerald underwent a routine upper deck inspection in Toledo, Ohio. The inspectors found some minor cracks to four hatches (openings on the deck that lead to cargo spaces below). The Fitzgerald had 21 of these cargo hatches. When viewed from above, these covered hatches looked like a long row of ribs that extended the length of the spar deck (upper deck). Each hatch opening was very large — about as long as those "big rig" trailers you see on the highway. It was not unusual, however, for a busy ship's hatches to show some damage from a season's loading or unloading. Therefore, the inspectors allowed the Fitzgerald to venture out on November 9 with the operators' promise to make the repairs during the winter off season. This was not the first time that the Fitzgerald had required repairs for accidental and routine damage. All Great Lakes freighters suffer a fair amount of damage.

On November 8, the day before their scheduled departure, the National Weather Service reported "a typical November storm" over the Oklahoma Panhandle that was moving northeast. The next day, November 9, was a warm, brilliantly sunny autumn day in Superior, Wisconsin, where the Fitzgerald was awaiting the season's last run. At about 8:30 that morning, "Big Fitz" was loaded up with over 26,000 tons of taconite pellets — about as heavy as 17,300 cars! Taconite pellets are little balls of processed iron ore. They are a valuable material in making steel that is used to make cars. That is why their final destination was 700 miles away in Detroit, the home of the world's leading car manufacturers. The round trip was expected to take about five days.

As the captain and crew of the Fitz made final preparations for her 2:15 P.M. departure, they did not suspect that soon they would be on a collision course with one of the worst storms in recent history on the Great Lakes. The 29-man crew was an experienced group of sailors, ranging in age from their twenties to their sixties. Most were forty or older. Mainly, they came from Ohio (13) and Wisconsin (8); the remaining eight were from Minnesota (3); Florida (2); and Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California (1).

The only crew change was a last-minute decision based on a doctor's exam of Dick Bishop, the ship's steward (cook). On November 8, the day before they were to ship out, a doctor ordered Dick to stay behind because of serious stomach troubles — bleeding ulcers. Dick, 28 years old, was very disappointed about missing this last run of the season. Strange though it may seem, this may be the only time in history that a case of bleeding ulcers actually saved someone's life. Bishop was ably replaced by Robert Rafferty, a 62-year-old grandfather who had logged 44 years at sea. Known for his baking skills, Rafferty loved the Fitz and its large kitchen, so when given another opportunity to sail on it, he jumped at the chance.

The skipper of this grand and majestic vessel was Captain Ernest McSorley, a master seaman with 44 years of experience. His long and distinguished career began at the age of 18 as a deckhand. He moved rapidly through the ranks and in 1950 became the youngest captain on the Great Lakes. From the time of its christening, in 1958, it had always been his dream to be captain of the Fitzgerald. "Big Fitz" was the flagship, the best of Columbia Transportation Division's fleet of twenty freighters, which were operated by Oglebay Norton Company of Cleveland. In Great Lakes shipping, it was generally understood that the best ships were entrusted to the most worthy captains. In 1971, McSorley replaced Captain Peter Pulcer, who retired. When McSorley was selected to captain the Fitz, it established him as one of the best skippers on the Great Lakes. As captain, he would typically spend nine to ten months each year on board. As he was about to embark on this last journey of the season, and after many years of memorable adventures on the Great Lakes, Captain McSorley now had his eye on retirement.

At 2:15 P.M., after an uneventful, routine loading, the Fitz departed, traveling at what was for her a pretty good speed of 16 mph. Two hours later, at 4:30 P.M., near Two Harbors, Minnesota, the Fitz sighted the U.S. Steel Corporation's Arthur M. Anderson, another huge freighter with a load of taconite pellets. Both vessels proceeded eastward, about ten to twenty miles apart, with the Fitz in the lead. The Anderson, skippered by Captain Jessie "Bernie" Cooper, was headed for Gary, Indiana. Together, these two ships would endure the same terrible storm of November 10, but only one of them would survive.


The Storm Worsens

Later that afternoon, as the Fitz and the Anderson lumbered at a slow but determined pace across Lake Superior, the Oklahoma storm began to build, moving north through Kansas and east over Iowa and then Wisconsin. As the storm front made its way toward Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Lake Superior, the National Weather Service (NWS) began to realize that this might not be just another storm. By 7:00 P.M., gale warnings were issued for all of Lake Superior. The new forecast for eastern Lake Superior warned of winds of nearly 45 miles per hour (38 knots) and waves up to 10 feet.

By 1:00 the next morning, on Monday, November 10, the Fitz was about 20 miles south of Isle Royale. Unrelenting heavy rains limited the captain's visibility. Gale-force winds were clocked at 60 mph (52 knots), and ten-foot waves repeatedly pummeled the mighty vessel. The danger of being accidentally blown overboard into the wild water, a chilling 37°F, was enough to keep the crew alert at all times.

One hour later, at 2:00 A.M., Captain Cooper of the Anderson contacted Captain McSorley by radiotelephone. Both were concerned about the threatening weather. Cooper noted that the gale warnings of 7:00 P.M. were now storm warnings. The sailors knew that the storm was building into something more serious and more dangerous by the hour. The NWS was predicting winds of nearly 60 mph and 15-foot waves.

Knowing what high winds could do to ships sailing Superior's southern shore, both skippers agreed to change their route. Rather than following the much shorter but more dangerous southern shore, they took the longer, safer northeasterly passage, following the more protected Canadian shore. With the swifter Fitz leading the way, they would sail a course between Michigan's Keeweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale. Experienced sailors on Superior have traditionally done this in bad weather. It is better to take a little longer and be safe.

Throughout the lonely night, the two giant freighters made steady progress, despite treacherous 50-mph winds and the constant struggle with increasingly large waves. Considering everything, it was fairly smooth sailing as the two ships headed eastward.


Excerpted from 29 Missing by Andrew Kantar. Copyright © 1998 Andrew Kantar. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: "Graveyard of the Great Lakes",
Chapter 2: The Fitz,
Chapter 3: The Final Journey,
Chapter 4: The Storm Worsens,
Chapter 5: "I've Never Seen Anything Like It In My Life",
Chapter 6: Vanished!,
Chapter 7: The Search Begins,
Chapter 8: Why Did the Fitzgerald Sink?,
Chapter 9: The Fitz Revisited: Exploring the Wreckage,
Explorations Down to the Wreck Site of the Edmund Fitzgerald,
The Crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald,

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29 Missing: The True and Tragic Story of the Disappearance of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I got this book for my kids to read and ended up reading and really enjoying it myself. The author made me feel the desperation and anguish of the horrible November night when the Fitzgerald went down. After reading it, I have much better insight to the many factors involved in the sinking. In fact, the various theories about why it sank are possibly the best part. I would highly recommend 29 Missing to anyone of any age because you don't have to be a nautical expert to enjoy it!