The launch and wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Posted: 06-18-2008 03:23 AM
A video including the hit song by Gordon Lightfoot (1976) - "The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (press the Play button on the lower left when the page comes up)
The fateful voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Check out the images and the size of the ships propeller on this page. Ignore their launch date though, they've got it wrong.
When I heard that the 50th anniversary of the launching of the EDMUND FITZGERALD was coming up, I felt a need to get this story in print. I don't consider myself a writer by any means, but I gave it my best shot....
I WAS THERE.... by Gary L. (Conscious)
On Saturday June 7th 1958, at the age of 11, I was fortunate to witness the launch of the EDMUND FITZGERALD on the Detroit River in River Rouge, Michigan.
A close friend, Paul Petroline who had turned 11 yrs old on May 2nd 1958 lived directly across the street from me on Lafayette in Lincoln Park, Michigan. It was Paul's parents who took us to see the launch. His uncle was a welder and helped to build the ship.
As memories of that day flood my mind, and the tragic events that followed, I realize that my friend’s life was already half over on that day -- you see Paul was killed in Vietnam when his helicopter was shot down in June, eleven years later.
Impressions fill my mind as I recall the event now fifty years later... Another helicopter is buzzing above, looping the area. Never had I seen so many people gathered in one place. It's a breezy day that helped to keep the crowd cool. I've heard it said that there were an estimated ten thousand people or more in attendance for this spectacular launch.
The Internet has served me well with photos and others accounts to help trigger my own memories that had been locked away all of these years. Now as I close my eyes, those memories that were rooted deep in my mind burst forth. For a few minutes I feel as though I'm actually there, reliving that moment in time, June 7th 1958….
There before me is the ship that is about to be launched - sideways. The size of it seems monstrous. It's supported by wooden poles and wooden beams below that angle down to the river and run the length of the ship. There are ropes holding the ship back on the starboard side (right side) the side facing us. The individual ropes, eight or more run through what look like guillotines poised to cut through them.
We're standing directly across from the propeller - that looks as huge as a house - and back maybe 250 feet or so. There's a hush in the crowd and I can hear voices that are barely audible coming from a highly decorated platform at the front of the ship. There's a loud electronic click. The guillotine blades have dropped! The ropes are cut and the ship is sliding down toward the river. The sound is thunderous, rumbling, squealing, cracking! The ship hit the river and there's a huge wave of water moving high into the air. The side of the ship is rolling downward. I can see several men lying spread-eagle on the deck. Now it's rolling the other way...now it's leveling off. What a site! What an experience! This is something I'll never forget….
Seventeen to eighteen years passed when a ballad came out by Gordon Lightfoot named "The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". I wondered then if that was the ship that I had seen launched when I was eleven, the ship that I swore I would never forget. As hard as I tried to recall, the ships name escaped me, my memory had failed me.
An entertainer who performed in several lounges in the area where I now live (Westland, Michigan) included the haunting ballad as part of his show. Each time I heard it that same nagging question haunted me, "Was that the ship I had seen launched when I was a kid?"
On May 18th 1983, at long last an answer came to my question. As luck would have it, I had been invited to videotape a Dinner Meeting (that included the spouses of members) at the Gross Point Yacht Club by my father-in-law, George A. Richardson, who was then the District Commander/President of the Detroit Power Squadron - an organization that teaches boating safety. An expert, Roger LeLievre – (Ann Arbor news papers) gave a lecture that included a slide presentation regarding the EDMUND FITZGERALD. It concluded with speculations by members about what may have caused her to sink.
During the slide presentation Roger showed an image of the ship and as I zoomed in on the image he stated that it was one of the few ships launched sideways and that it had been built and launched in River Rouge, Michigan on the Detroit River June 7th 1958. I knew instantly that it was the ship I had seen launched! My camera was mounted on a tripod so I turned to my wife, Shelley and nodded confirmation several times. I was indeed there!
As both of us continued smiling my mind raced…. “Was it possible that I, the camera man was the only one present in this large group of people who saw her launched and had witnessed the moment when she had come to life? All I can tell you today is that I still find it amazing that I was invited to attend that particular event.
Several days later my wife and I did some shopping at the Westland Mall here in Westland, Michigan. Shelley needed some yarn and things so we walked downstairs to a store that supplied them (The basement in the mall is no longer open to stores).
After gathering what she needed we walked to the cash register and the lady behind it for who knows what reason began talking about her husband who works on a ship up north. That got my attention and I told her the story about how I discovered just a few days ago that I had seen the EDMUND FITZGERALD launched when I was eleven years old, but after 17 years forgot its name. She said, "I WAS THERE...I was there when the EDMUND FITZGERALD went down!" She told us she was aboard the WILLIAM CLAY FORD with her husband (she had special permissions or something to that effect). As I recall, she had told us that when she heard the news about the EDMUND FITZGERALD, she ran to the Captain crying and begging that they go out and look for survivors. He undoubtedly was considering doing just that at the time but said, "You know, I have a responsibility to all these men." She pleaded some more then ran back to her cabin sobbing.
Eventually the WILLIAM CLAY FORD set out to look for survivors...none were ever found.
As I think back on all of my memories surrounding the EDMUND FITZGERALD, I find it ironic that by going below in the mall, I connected with someone who was near the Fitzgerald (not many miles away) when she dropped "below" the storm. And why did that lady begin talking to us about her husband who had worked on a ship up north? Especially then, when I had just learned that the ship in that song was the actual ship I had witnessed being launched...and what is the significance of this phantom helicopter buzzing above me from time to time? ... Could it be my friend, Paul? Perhaps I will never know the answers to these questions, but one thing is for certain, I am grateful for all the memories of that special day that I was there…
As I laid in bed on the morning of the 50th anniversary I was thinking about the launch of the EDMUND FITZGERALD and my friend Paul when I heard a helicopter flying over my Townhouse. I jumped out of bed and peeked through my mini blinds into a gray sky but I never saw the chopper, I could only hear the sound of its propellers receding slowly away...
Do a Google search for Paul Petroline to learn about his fate.
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=Pa ... gle+Search
Gary wishes to thank his friend and neighbor, Linda Daly for editing this story.
One of eleven children, Gary is pictured here one month after the launch of the EDMUND FITZGERALD at Camp Ozanam (compliments of the St. Vincent de Paul Society). Gary calls this, "One of the best times of my life".