The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald (and Aliens)


Yesterday was the 37th anniversary of the sinking of the Great Lakes freighter the Edmund Fitzgerald. At over 700 feet (220 meters) long and with a crew of 29, the Fitz was the greatest shipping loss on the lakes in history. The tragedy is remembered very well in my home state of Michigan, especially in the north. The ship was lost near Whitefish Point on Lake Superior, and the last contact with the Fitzgerald was at 7:10 PM of November 10th, 1975.

The loss of the ship was even more tragic because of the uncertainty of its cause. There had been many ship losses at about the same point the Fitzgerald was lost (showcased well at the Whitefish Point Shipwreck Museum in Paradise Michigan; go there sometime if you can).

This bell from the Fitz was brought up and cleaned. It resides in the Shipwreck Museum today. Another bell with the names of the lost crew was returned to the ship.

Many of the accidents can be related to the strong winds that happen around that point along with the fogs that can develop. This has lead to various measures to minimize the risk, and fortunately there have not been any wrecks since the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost. But even to this day, there is not a consensus on what brought down the freighter.

Some of the ideas are obvious, such as the weather producing significant waves on Lake Superior. After all, this is the largest fresh body of water in the world, and you can get some very intense waves up there. The night of the sinking there was plenty of bad weather are reported gale-force winds (some measurements were in the vicinity of 80 miles per hour). A combination of waves from these winds are also possible, and if the ship was in the wrong place at the wrong time it could have been a “perfect storm” to undo the Fitz. There is also the possibility that the ship hit ground (called shoaling), and there are some shallower spots where this is possible, such as near Caribou Island. Some have considered the way the cargo was contained and not properly kept dry. That is, the material the ship was carrying taconite iron ore pellets, and with the extra water leaking into the hold from the hatches, it would have been enough in the terrible conditions of the night to bring about a catastrophic loss of stability.

These are not the only plausible theories, though with the years of research time into the cause it may simply not be possible to figure out what exactly did bring down the ship. Fortunately, the ship had been found and ceremonies have been down with the families of the lost crew members to bring some level of peace.

But if I was the brother or friend of one of the victims, one theory out there if argued would likely have made my blood boil. If you can imagine it (OK, in this day and age, you can), it has been speculated that aliens were somehow involved. And you can guess where such a thing was said: the (a)History Channel.

First, a bit of background. In the Great Lakes, there is the idea of a sort of Bermuda Triangle, called the Michigan Triangle, and a number of ships and planes have been lost over Lake Michigan. Since this is mysterious (or made mysterious), it only attracts other such thoughts. But in an old episode of History’s Mysteries, “Mysteries of the Devil’s Triangles“, while bouncing around to various mysterious ends of ships from around the world, they talk about the Edmund Fitzgerald. If you know about this TV series, you know it’s history can be rather hit-or-miss. And throughout the episode, and in connection to the Great Lake disaster, UFOs were invoked.

How can one first think the best explanation for a ship going down is aliens? The only point that was brought up was that the bodies were not found. Hence, perhaps, they were taken away. If this is a story about a loved-one, I would imagine this would be heart-wrenching. It would mean your family member or friend is still alive (unless the ETs are nefarious), but it seems such as disrespect to deny the tragedy for one’s own fantastic speculations. Especially if the only piece of evidence is very explicable.

Lake Superior is said to not give up her dead. And the reason for this is because it is so cold. Even in summer the waters are chilly (and November is not any better), and cold water is very good at keeping corpses from floating. This is in part because bodies float when bacteria have caused decay to the body and in the process release gases. The cold water of Lake Superior slows this decay, and so the bodies stay down. And with the condition of the ship, it is easily possible for the crew to be hidden away in some part (or under something), preventing a find of the body. Also, the ship is 530 feet (160 meters) below the surface of the water, not an easy place to take a dive.

But it is possible that one of the bodies remains. Back in 1994, Frederick Shannon had made dives using a mini-sub to the site, and he claimed to have seen and photographed a body in the wreckage. Many of the victims’ families were upset that Shannon had done this, announced it, and was planning of releasing the photos. After all, the ship was considered a cemetery for 29 people, and no one is really okay with people going around graveyards looking for bodies to photograph. As far as I can tell, the photo of the body has not been released, and I haven’t found anything that discounts that a body was found, though my searches are hardly complete. (Here is a report from another member of the diving group, also mentioning the find of a body, and here is the first newspaper report of the find.)

Since the History Channel documentary came nearly a decade after the alleged body find, that makes the alien abduction supposition completely without basis, not to mention without heart or the ability to spell ‘research’. And because it is so crass and nonsensical, I can bet it will come up in the next season of Ancient Aliens. (Yes, a fraking 5th season of the that show is in the works. What more proof is needed that there is no God?) They have already exhausted all the “good” ideas for aliens already, so they might as well talk about other mysteries and make them about aliens. Titanic? Aliens inside an iceberg or watching the accident from afar. Bermuda Triangle? Well, aliens want privacy while vacationing in the Caribbean. Destruction of the U.S.S. Maine? Alien space weapon working with the military-industrial complex of the US to bring the US into war with Spain and create an empire. (Wow, I’d be a great script writer for Giorgio Tsoukalos. And by great, I mean I would have to hate myself.)

So let’s nip this in the bud. The Edmund Fitzgerald is a tragedy brought about by uncertain ends but all likely due to the poor weather conditions over Lake Superior. The loss of the ship brought about changes to maritime regulations on the Great Lakes, and so far another such incident has not been repeated since. And fortunately, the memory of that event is beautifully accounted in the folk song by Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“. 

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