Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Capt. Donald Erickson remembers the night his crew tried to find survivors from the Edmund Fitzgerald

(Note: Capt. Erickson passed away March 26. He was 84. It's probably fair to say I was the last person to interview him when we met on Feb. 25, 2012. It was my honor to do so. May he rest in peace. Funeral arrangements were handled by Howe-Peterson Funeral Home in Taylor, Mich. His remains were cremated and as of March 28, there was no funeral service information.)

The night of November 10, 1975, was a night like no other.
If that date doesn’t ring any bells, perhaps referencing Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits will do the trick.
That was the night that the Edmund Fitzgerald, the largest ship to ever ply the Great Lakes at the time, went down in a ferocious storm north of Whitefish Bay in Lake Superior.
It is well known that when she went down, she it took all 29 souls aboard with her.
What isn’t as well known is the story of the brave sailors who risked their lives to try to find survivors of the Fitz. After the Coast Guard radioed that contact had been lost with the Fitz and she had gone down, a frantic call was sent out to nearby ships to assist in recovery of anyone who had survived the sinking.
Capt. Don Erickson, who helmed the SS William Clay Ford, was docked at Whitefish Point when the call came in. He and his crew agreed to head out into dangerous waters along with the Arthur M. Anderson to look for survivors. When they arrived at the spot that the Fitzgerald went down, about three hours after contact was lost, all the William Clay Ford saw was two ducks, according to Erickson.
While their search came up empty, the captain and crew of the SS William Clay Ford was presented with many awards for their bravery, including a plaque bestowed upon them by the Great Lakes Maritime Insitute. It reads “On the night of November 10–11, 1975, these men voluntarily left a safe harbor to face the dangers of gale force winds and vicious seas, in the blackness of a storm which had already claimed as a victim the steamer Edmund Fitzgerald, to search for possible survivors of that disaster, exemplifying the finest traditions of the maritime profession."
I had always believed that the Fitz went down because it ended up sitting on two rogue waves at the stem and the stern that lifted the center section off the water. With nothing to support the center, it broke it two. Erickson is convinced the Fitz struck a shoal near Caribou Island which produced a hole in the hull that ultimately led to the sinking.
Here is my interview with Capt. Erickson and his memories from that harrowing night.

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