Former STN Publisher Bob Nester Recounts His Expedition to the Edmund Fitzgerald
“Superior, they said, never gives up her dead,
“When the gales of November come early,” – Gordon Lightfoot
Most of us know the ballad, its haunting lyrics and guitar riff, and how it can eerily place us in the tragic story of the Edmund Fitzgerald when it sank that night in a violent November storm on Lake Superior.
Many of us, maybe most of us, only know the story through Gordon Lightfoot’s famous song. However, one local resident played an integral role in uncovering the secrets of the great ship’s sinking with the idea that her story may not yet be complete.
Sun Times News Publisher/Owner Bob Nester helped organize an expedition in 1989 to the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Here, he recounts the mission and the emotion around it, suggesting, too, that the mystery surrounding the great freighter’s sinking may yet be revealed.
“The expedition was a collaboration between the Michigan Sea Grants Program, PBS station WQED out of Philadelphia, the National Geographic Society, NOAA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Whitefish Point Shipwreck Museum,” Bob explains. “I was with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service back then, and one of the organizers of the expedition contacted me to see if they could use one of our boats.”
At the time, Bob managed the USFWS fleet of vessels on the Great Lakes. He approached the administration with the request, but “they wanted nothing to do with it,” he says. “It’s not the intended use for our ships, they explained.” But, after some persuasion and a trip to Washington, Bob convinced them it was in their best interests to host the research expedition.
“The researchers wanted to use the new technology of an underwater robotic video camera to explore the wreck,” explains Bob. “This ROV (remotely operated vehicle) was cutting edge back then and could offer some clues as to why the Fitzgerald sank.”
The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a poignant story that has captured people's attention around the world.
On November 9, 1975, the 729-foot freighter, SS Edmund Fitzgerald, sailed out of Superior, WI, loaded with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets (processed iron ore). The SS Arthur M. Anderson, captained by Jesse B. Cooper, followed the Fitzgerald. Aware of a coming storm, Fitzgerald Captain Ernest M. McSorley took a northerly course across Lake Superior, taking advantage of the highlands of the Canadian shore for protection. What were gale warnings on November 9th turned into storm warnings by the morning of the 10th. While the conditions were terrible, both captains often piloted their ships in similar situations.
At 3:30 pm, McSorley radioed Captain Cooper of the Anderson that he had experienced some damage on deck, had lost both radars. The ship was listing and “taking heavy seas over the deck.” McSorley slowed down to close the gap between the vessels in order for the Anderson to escort them to Whitefish Bay.
Cooper later said, "I know one thing, at 3:20 in the afternoon, that ship received a mortal wound. She either bottomed out or suffered a stress fracture. I think she bottomed out." He added, "I honestly believe they knew they were in trouble, but Whitefish Bay was only 14 miles away, and he (McSorley) thought he could make that."
At 5:20 pm, Cooper reported winds gusting to 70 knots (80 mph, the speed of a category one hurricane) and seas of 18 to 25 feet. The Anderson continued to watch the Fitzgerald on its radar, helping the radar-less McSorley set his course. At 6:55 pm, a monstrous wave engulfed Anderson from astern, driving the bow down into the sea. The Anderson raised out of the water. Immediately, another wave as big or bigger than the first hit them again. The ship once again bobbed up out of the water. Captain Cooper watched the two huge waves head down Superior toward the Fitzgerald, later saying, “I think those were the two that sent him (McSorley) under.”
At 7:10 pm, the Anderson’s radio operator contacted the Fitzgerald, asking how they were making out with their problems. “We are holding our own,” came the reply. At 7:15 pm, the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson’s radar screen. All 29 lives were lost.
Fourteen years after the tragedy, Bob and the researchers boarded the 75-foot R.V. Grayling and set sail for Lake Superior to where the Edmund Fitzgerald sank 17 miles from Whitefish Bay.
“It took us days to anchor the boat properly because of the bad weather and heavy seas,” remembers Bob. “The Grayling had to be accurately positioned to send down the camera. We had to triangulate three anchors to hold the boat in position over the wreck. Dropping them in over 500 feet of water with rough seas took some work.”
After several days of tiresome work, the Grayling was finally positioned over the wreck. It was midnight. Researchers had a brief weather window to work with before Lake Superior kicked up her waves again. The camera was readied. But before sending the camera down, the lead researcher asked the Grayling’s Captain, Cliff Wilson, to speak a few words.
“It is a gravesite, after all,” explains Bob. “But Cliff wouldn’t do it. He was nervous speaking about such a solemn event in front of everyone.”
Bob strongly felt that they should respectfully recognize the moment. He made a deal with the Captain. “I asked Cliff if I wrote the words, would he read them?” recalls Bob. Captain Wilson agreed. Bob took a few minutes to compose his thoughts on paper and turned it over to Wilson.
“We are here not to disturb. We are here only to remember,” was one memorable line read by Captain Wilson and quoted in the newspapers.
“It was a powerful moment,” says Bob. “I still get chills thinking about it.”
The ROV was lowered into Superior’s cold waters. As it descended, all that could be seen on the monitor were the particles and plankton passing by in the camera’s lights. Everybody was watching, waiting, holding their breath.
“The camera suddenly goes erratic, and we’re wondering what the heck happened,” recounts Bob. “We’re in 537 feet of water, and it’s largely a mystery of what goes on down there.”
The camera steadied, and a ghostly white pole appeared. The ROV had struck the Edmund Fitzgerald’s mast. The engineers steering the camera from the Grayling maneuvered it slowly down the mast until it came to rest in front of something that took everyone’s breath away. There, in the small circle of the camera’s light, sat the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
“When you consider the depth and strong current down there, dropping that camera right on top of the ship’s mast and having it stop with the ship’s bell on the screen was nothing short of a miraculous feat,” says Bob. “You couldn’t have placed it any better if you’d had a diver guiding it.”
The researchers and crew began to realize that they were involved in more than collecting information. It was as if they had been given permission to learn the secrets and tell an extraordinary story of power and tragedy—the story of a great ship on great water tragically sunk by a great storm. The reverence which had begun with Bob’s eulogy continued.
“We started flying the camera around the boat, and it was eerie,” remembers Bob. “Nobody said anything, but you could tell every time we came to an opening, people were nervous we’d find a body. It was tense. The camera came up to the pilothouse. All the windows were gone. The door was open. I remember the microphone hanging by its chord, swaying in the current.”
Even though it had been fourteen years after the sinking, Bob explains that a human body would be well-preserved in the icy depths of Lake Superior. The extreme cold prohibits the bacterial decay that produces the gas which bloats and floats a body to the surface after a few days. As a result, a body lost in Lake Superior is likely to remain submerged, hence the haunting line from Lightfoot’s song.
“But we didn’t find any bodies,” says Bob.
But they did find evidence of the tremendous force water could exert on a ship.
Bob points to a Coast Guard sketch of the damaged anchor lockers where the steel is about 18 inches thick to keep the swinging anchor from punching a hole in the hull.
“Those anchor lockers were ripped like they were paper,” he says. “It was either the force of the water on the boat as it went down or the impact when it hit bottom. Either way, it took an unbelievable amount of force to do that.”
Bob also points to the pilothouse and the wrinkling along the top edge. “That’s thick, heavy-gauge steel. That damage is from the force of the water as it went down because that part of the ship never made contact with the bottom.”
The researchers gathered five hours of video, packed up, and reluctantly returned. After the data was analyzed and processed, an inquiry was conducted at Michigan State University involving Naval engineers, insurance companies, and scientists to see if the new evidence could shed light on the cause of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s sinking. Many hypotheses had been offered, but nothing conclusive could be determined.
“The discussion was over what was found and how it might explain the Edmund Fitzgerald’s sinking,” says Bob. “But there were some things that I noticed on the wreckage that never came up in the discussions. I had questions on my mind that were conspicuously unanswered.”
Like others before them, the inquiry panel could not conclusively determine what caused the Edmund Fitzgerald to sink. To this day, the exact cause remains a mystery and is a matter of speculation and debate.
Months after the inquiry, Bob conversed with an acquaintance who did salvage on the Great Lakes and studied the wreck himself. This friend offered a theory as to the ship’s sinking that answered Bob’s questions.
“He told me some very interesting things that nobody is aware of to this day,” says Bob. “His information might be very good clues to what actually took place and where. He never presented his thoughts because, at the time, there were huge concerns about lawsuits. As far as I know, he never formally presented his thoughts.”
That friend has since passed away, leaving Bob with his secret. But Bob is reticent to divulge the theory without further investigation. “At this point, I don’t want to speculate because it could all be conjecture. I would rather have the data investigated and approved by naval engineers.”
However, there is still hope that the mystery of the Edmund Fitzgerald may still be solved. Bob knows the people who years ago showed the engineering dynamics that sank the Titanic. He is considering turning his information over to them to see if they want to pursue and investigate it, perhaps for the 50th anniversary of the freighter’s sinking.
Looking back on the voyage, Bob says, “It was a very emotionally charged expedition. Nobody had been down there to the wreck in the detail we were going to see. I can tell you everybody that was involved was on pins and needles for the entire duration of the expedition.”
“People just can’t appreciate the severity of the weather on the Great Lakes during the change of seasons,” continues Bob. “I’ve seen it get pretty rough out there. I’ve heard many people that sail the ocean professionally say that they would rather sail in a bad storm on the oceans than they would in the Great Lakes.”
He explained it has to do with the wave height and the length between waves. On the ocean, it is mostly like riding up and down hills. On the Great Lakes, it’s like being in a washing machine. Water weighs eight pounds a gallon. The churning, raging force Lake Superior can have on a ship is unimaginable.
The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald has had a worldwide fascination. News services across the country and around the world carried the story of the Sea Grant Expedition. Good Morning American helicoptered a crew in to cover it. A news service from New Zealand interviewed Bob.
“It’s a tragic story,” Bob says of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s enduring fascination. “Nobody survived. Why it sank is still a mystery. It is inconceivable to think there are forces big enough to sink a ship in modern times.”
Perhaps that is why people by nature seem to be drawn to forces bigger than themselves. It is what drives explorers, adrenaline junkies, and pious congregants. We yearn to engage that which cannot be perceived through the senses.
“When we came back to Whitefish Point from the expedition, cars were parked up and down the road a mile or more,” recalls Bob. “The whole town came out, and people from all over were waiting for us to come back and tell what we had found. We managed to cram ourselves into a crowded bar, and they put that song on.”
“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,
“Of the big lake they call ‘Gitche Gumee…” – Gordon Lightfoot
And it’s true. The legend lives on.
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum: The Fateful Journey, by Sean Ley
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: The Fish & Wildlife Service You Don’t Know: The Edmund Fitzgerald
U.S. Coast Guard Marine Casualty Report on SS Edmund Fitzgerald Sinking in Lake Superior on 10 November 1975 with Loss of Life. July 26, 1977.