Former sailor recalls famous shipwreck

Photo courtesy of American House

Dearborn Heights resident Elmer Dunn, second mate on the Willam Clay Ford, a tanker that assisted in the search and rescue of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, stands in the pilot house of the Ford at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle in Detroit.

Times-Herald Newspapers

HEIGHTS – Almost as memorable as the stories of disasters are the stores of the aftermath. When tragedy happens, many heroes are born when the cleanup begins.

A local resident, who lives in the America House Senior Living Community in Dearborn Heights, recalled his own experiences taking part in the search and recovery operation of the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history.

Elmer Dunn, 99, who served on five ore carriers owned by Ford Motor Co. from 1939 to 1975, recalled the events of Nov. 10, 1975, when he was a 63-year-old second mate on the William Clay Ford, a freighter whose crew volunteered their time and services to search for the Edmund Fitzgerald, the 700-foot-long tanker built in 1957 which sank that day in Lake Superior, taking 29 crew members with it.

Problems began for the doomed ship when waves from Lake Superior already destroyed the radar equipment on the Fitzgerald, and the ship went down after coming too close to a sandbar. Because the ship was constantly in motion, crew members didn’t initially realize they hit something.

The captain of the Arthur M. Anderson, Capt. Jesse Cooper, kept in contact with the Fitzgerald’s captain, Ernest McSorely, until it disappeared from the radar screen.

“They talked back and forth,” Dunn said. “The Fitzgerald was 15 miles ahead of the Anderson. The captain was suggesting (the Fitzgerald) was too close to Caribou Island’s shoals. Eventually they just went off the screen.”

For Dunn and the rest of the crew of the Ford, the night began as usual. He was on watch in the pilothouse, which he described as “sacred space,” from midnight to 4 a.m as the Ford remained anchored in Whitefish Bay in the Upper Peninsula.

“We went about our regular routine,” he said. “I ate and had a nap and went back and joined a poker game.”

The helmsman came back from a coffee break and said that the Fitzgerald had taken a dive. When the crew of the Anderson called in the reports, the Coast Guard doubted the severity of the situation and didn’t have a boat big enough to go out in. He said the Anderson’s captain initially refused to go back out and search for the missing ship.

“The captain (of the Anderson) said no,” he said. “He said,‘If we were to turn around, there would be two of them on the bottom.’”

The captains of the tankers (Cooper and William Clay Ford Capt. Don Erickson) started talking to each other and came to the conclusion that if the Anderson turned around, the Ford would go with them. Once the Anderson was able to safely reach Whitefish Point and could turn around, the ship went back to search for the Fitzgerald, along with the Ford.

When they got the site of the wreck, the Ford’s crew knew there wouldn’t be much found, including survivors. If anyone did make it through, they would have been in the pilothouse and would have been blown out to open water.

“No one could have been outside on deck with life preservers on,” he said, “They were all trapped in their rooms.”

The lighthouse at Whitefish Point had been knocked out during a storm that struck the area, producing waves about 30 feet high and winds estimated at 45 knots. The Fitzgerald had no radio direction finder, but the crew of the Ford knew their surroundings. The scene was already hectic by the time the Ford arrived, Dunn said.

“By the time we got to the location, the Anderson had it spotted,” he said. “By the time we got there there was a helicopter and two fixed-wing aircraft dropping flares.”

Dunn said the Ford headed out slowly into the area of the wreck and discovered the rear of the ship sticking out of the water because the tanker, at 729 feet, was longer than the the lake’s 482-foot depth. The ship was taking a pounding from the rough seas, and Dunn said he knew it was not going to last long.

“The waves are coming up under the stern and raising it,” he said. “At the same time, there would be about three different waves working on it (simultaneously).” The ship was loaded with over 25,000 tons of pelletized iron ore, which Dunn said made the front of the boat heavier.

When the bow hit bottom, the stern was jutting out of the water with the propeller still turning. He said the combination of the propeller’s forward-moving force and the bow stuck in the lake floor caused the middle of the ship to compress and break.

“With the propeller still having some torque to it,” he said, “That half turned completely over and just settled on the bottom.”

About 25 percent of the ship was completely turned upside down.

The next morning, crews began to find wreckage from the ship, including two steel lifeboats and rafts that broke loose from the sunken ship.

“To see the steel beams that the ships are made of,” he said, “and those hatch covers – steel just twisted each way like Tinkertoys, it gives the engineers something to work on.”

No bodies were ever recovered from the wreck because gas from the bodies could not form due to the cold temperature of the water, preventing them from floating to the service.

The Detroit Lodge No. 7, a maritime union, orgainized in the 1990s and sponsored a salvage operation to find the the only recoverable part of the ship — its bell, which was recovered July 4, 1995.

A replica bell featuring the names of all 29 victims is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in the Upper Peninsula, and the original bell is on display at a museum in Whitefish Point.

The ship’s anchor is on display in front of the Dossin Great lakes Museum on Belle Isle in Detroit.

After about six months, Dunn said, the shock of the operation faded, and life on the ship went back to business as usual. He said it was like any other day at work. He said he feels “silly” being invited to speak at the remembrance ceremonies.