The launch and wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

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The launch and wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Post by Conscious » 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 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.
link below: ... gle+Search

Gary wishes to thank his friend and neighbor, Linda Daly for editing this story.
Linda Daly

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".
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Post by Bobbi Snow » 06-18-2008 03:41 AM

I have always loved Gordon Lightfoot's rendition. I was about 12 at the time, but nowhere near it's launching. But the song haunts me...
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Post by Iris » 06-18-2008 04:48 AM

Hey Conscious! Long time no see and I hope you and yours are well and happy. Whatcha' been doin?

Fascinating post and the video footage was haunting. So it's YOU who saw the launch?

I always did love that song.

Wiki says nearly 6,000 shipwrecks have occurred on the Great Lakes since 1878, with about a quarter of those being listed as total losses.

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Post by Shirleypal » 06-18-2008 08:59 AM

Gary thank you for sharing your personal story and memories with the Pirates on this ship, the Edmund Fitzgerald has been memorialized worldwide by sailors everywhere and by Gordon Lightfoots Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald song. I hope if you haven't already shared this wonderful story with the Great Lakes Marine Museum that you will.

Some how I think that your friend Paul is watching over you and honored that you have never forgotten him.

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Post by Kaztronic » 06-19-2008 02:44 AM

Gosh Gary,

What a post. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Reading it, I could feel the emotion that I think clearly went in to writing it.

You say you're not a writer, but you really could be. Reading the words you set down here, one need only close their eyes for a moment to imagine the awe of watching this great ship launch in to the waters that would later claim her. One can especially imagine the awesome nature of that sight as seen through the eyes of a child (your photo at the end really brought that home). For me, the common point of reference was the first time I stood next to one of the Twin Towers. I recall walking up the building and leaning my head all the way back to look up the side of this impossibly tall building. These moments of awe stay with us forever. The sight of a ship launching must be absolutely amazing. The video you provided cast the launching of the Edmund Fitzgerald with a near mythic quality - the waves, the mist in the air afterwards, the ship looked so powerful in that video, I can only imagine what it must have been like in real life.

Despite the massive stature of that ship, the power she projected, and the awe she clearly inspired in people who saw her first hand, the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost. I don't know about you, but while I understand it, I still find it so hard to reconcile the loss of that which so impressed us in that manner. I wonder, do you feel the same way?

By the way, regarding this sentence:

"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."

Truer words were never spoken. An amazing thing, isn't it?

Thanks again for sharing your story with us, that really was an amazing post. :)
Last edited by Kaztronic on 06-19-2008 03:03 AM, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by Linnea » 06-19-2008 05:00 PM

Fabulous article, Gary! Your evocative journalistic style is excellent. Also, weaving the mystical into the perceived world is a real talent.

The whole of the experience, as it unfolded to you, describes that element of synchonicity which is a gateway (in the manner of James Redfield and Whitley Strieber) into the world of consciousness and meaning. (Remember when we used to argue this point vis a vis 'astrology' back when? ;) )

The Edmund Fitzgerald, and especially the wreck of the Fitzgerald is also significant to me, for this reason. As you know, I also have a history with the Detroit area, and lived there for several years. Had a friend who crewed on the Fitzgerald and who was still crewing on the ship when the news came out that she was in trouble up in Lake Superior in that horrific gale - as far as I knew.

I followed the unfolding drama with a sinking heart. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was very tragic, and few people are aware how involved with maritime shipping the people of the Great Lakes are, especially those of us living near Lakes St Clair, Huron, Superior and the Detroit River.

My friend was not crewing at the time of wreck. He had moved on a couple months before to Provincetown, MA.

I will never forget those hours, as the Edmund Fitzgerald and other ships struggled in that 'gale of november', and was lost with all hands on deck. Nor will I forget Gordon Lightfoot's incredible ballad. Listen to it often. (Actually, was later fortunate to hear Gordon Lightfoot performing 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' live, here at the Paramount Theater in Seattle).

Here is another link. This one to the Shipwreck Museum of the Great Lakes, at Whitefish Point (where the Fitzgerald was heading for safe port). You can read about the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and other wrecks of the Great Lakes:

Here is where the recovered and restored ship's bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald is on display.

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Post by TABwebmaster » 06-22-2008 01:05 AM

Awesome post, Gary! I don't like to admit it but when it comes to shipwrecks, even ones like the Edmund Fitzgerald (which I have no connection to), I usually cry and this post and all the videos brought the tears again. I feel for all those who have lost their lives but especially those who have died at sea. That has to be the loneliest way to go.

Cheers for the great post, Gary!!:)

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Post by vigo » 06-22-2008 01:45 AM

Thank you Gary for your moving words. The song has a connection for me now. It never did before. It just sounded like a nice ballad with a nice melody. The lives of those lost are real to me now as well as the life of your friend. Again, thank you for making them real to me.
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Post by Conscious » 06-23-2008 10:04 PM

Thanks everyone for your kind comments... I'd like to remind you that my friend and neighbor Linda Daly - Author/Screenwriter/Publisher fine tuned (edited) the article. It reads much better than it would have without her help. Writing for me is difficult. It takes me forever to put a paragraph together that sounds good and reads easy. Linda is a very talented writer. Explore her site and you'll see what I mean...

Also, I want to say that I see talent in some of the replies in this thread. Make good with it... :)

I may have more to say regarding the replies in this thread in the future (some of the statements and questions are exciting) - but believe when I say that writing (putting my thoughts in print) is tough for me. It takes me forever, so please forgive if I'm quiet.
I've just finished a page with a link to the video that's in this thread, a couple of audio files and links to websites about the Edmund Fitzgerald. Pay it a visit - Click Here.
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Post by megman » 06-23-2008 10:33 PM

Great job conscious!

I have vague recollections of seeing the Edmund Fitzgerald on her last trip through the Detroit River headed north.

This vividly reminded me of sitting in Dieppe Park in Windsor watching her in awe as she sailed by. Memories.........
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Post by Captain Fantastic » 07-18-2008 04:50 PM

Great website for the Fitzgerald, Conscious! Lightfoot sounds fantastic.

Thanks for yer great work and contribution to the maritime lore.

Your Link here

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Post by Fan » 06-06-2011 12:21 PM

This is a great story, and great writing. The song based on this event is one of my favorites, I have seen Gordon live more than once. In fact I listened to the song last night. It is amazing how it is still a well-known story in our day and age, I assume mostly because of that song. Is there a titanic song (no not from the movie... contemporary)?

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Post by Fan » 05-07-2013 10:58 PM

bump for great post. We miss you Conscious!
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Post by BenSlain » 05-09-2013 06:41 AM

Yes a great thread. I can't get enough about this.
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