1979      BELL  AEROSPACE  Inc.          

Grand Bend,     Ontario,      Canada

During the design development of combat hovercraft for the U.S. Army, I handled the full size close tolerance lofting of the Glass Reinforced Plastic, main air intake cowlings.

Followed by the designing and supervision of the fabrication of the assembly jig to accurately unite the cowling sub sections.


Part of Textron USA to view Click Here

Northern Ontario Sunset

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Submersible Surveys Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

By Timothy M. Askew,   Director,   Marine Operations

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution,    Fort Pierce,     Florida

On November 10, 1975, the saga of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald began; on her way from the Lake Superior port of Duluth, Minnesota, to Toledo, Ohio, the 729-foot iron-ore carrier sank, without warning, during one of the most powerful storms ever seen on the Great Lakes. The vessel sank so quickly that there was no time for a distress signal. All 29 crewmen perished.

In July of 1994. Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution’s (HBOI) research vessel Edwin Link and the research submersible Clelia surveyed the wreckage in an effort to obtain more information as to why the Fitzgerald foundered. The research team was made up of representatives from HBOI; the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, based at Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; and Dr. Joe MacInnis of Undersea Research Ltd. (Toronto. Ontario, Canada).

The team’s objective was to photo-tape as much of the wreck as possible during a three-day hiatus from conducting graph and videoscientific research in the Great Lakes.

Events Leading to the Disaster

After onloading a cargo of 26,000 tons of taconite pellets (marble-size, low-grade iron ore), the Edmund Fitzgerald—under the command of Capt. Ernest McSorley—departed the port of Duluth early afternoon on Sunday, November 9. 1975. on an easterly course for Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and the Soo locks. By Sunday afternoon, forecasters had predicted gale-force winds; early Monday morning, winds had increased to 50+ miles per hour with seas excess of 20 feet. And by mid-after-noon, winds were gusting at 60+ mph seas in excess of 25 feet—which was high enough to crash over the decks of the low-lying Fitzgerald.

The blizzard had virtually eliminated all visibility on the lake and before it was over would produce winds with gusts up to 100 mph. which would churn the waters into 30-foot waves.

The Arthur M. Anderson, which left Two Harbors, Minnesota, on a parallel course, was ahead of Fitzgerald until 3:00 a.m. Monday when she was overtaken by the faster Fitzgerald. The two ships traveled the north Superior shoreline to avoid the full force of the storm, gaining the protection of Caribou Island to Whitefish Bay where conditions were much better. By 1:40 p.m., the Fitzgerald was 9 miles ahead of Anderson and by 3:00 p.m. she was passing the east side of Caribou Island trying to avoid a nearby shoal.

Radio communications between the two vessels shortly after passing Caribou Island indicated that the Fitzgerald had sustained some topside damage—with the loss of two vents and some railing—-and that the ship indicating that she was taking on water; however, Capt. McSorley told the Anderson that both pumps working.

By late afternoon, seas were 25 feet and winds were 67 mph. At 4:00 p.m Capt. McSorley radioed the Anderson to indicate that his two antennas had blown off and to ask for assistance in navigating his way to the safety of Whitefish Bay. At 7:00 p.m., the Anderson’s first mate notified the Fitzgerald that another ship, the Avaford, was close and would pass to the west. He also inquired about the status of the Fitzgerald. Capt. McSorley replied, "We are holding our own." Shortly afterwards, the Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald on its radar.

Events Following the Disaster

Precisely how it happened remains a subject of debate. The only things that ever turned up were two lifeboats, two life rafts, some life jackets, and various life rings. There was no indication that any of the survival equipment was in use by the crew.

The next morning, after the storm had dissipated, the William R. Roesch along with the William Clai’ Ford and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Woodrush—departed Whitefish Bay. The Roesch, one of the first ships out, was asked by the Coast Guard to look for survivors. All she found was half a life boat, which was recovered and later offloaded at Marquette, Michigan.

Shortly after the sinking, a target thought to be the Fitzgerald was located by using side-scan sonar. This was not verified unti] the following year, 1976, when the wreckage was identified and viewed by the U.S. Navy’s Curv lii, a remotely operated vehicle equipped with video cameras. in 1980, the Cousteau Society, using Jacques Cousteau’s manned submersible Sou Coupe, conducted a 30-minute dive on the wreckage before an electrical failure ended its mission. In 1989. Chris Nicholson and his Deep Sea Systems international inc. conducted a series of dives with the low-cost ROV MiniRover Mk ii to obtain additional video documentation for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.

Theories Abounded

Last July. HBOI’s Edwin Link and the research submersible Clelia visited the wreck site of the Fitzgerald. The opportunity to view the wreckage from a manned submersible offered scientists. engineers, and historians a close-up look with the potential to obtain information that could prove or disprove some of the many theories as to how she sank.

One theory held that the sinking resulted from water intrusion by towering waves crashing across the deck into the cargo holds through ineffective hatch coverings or a break in the hull, causing the ship to become heavier, to lose buoyancy, and finally to nose dive into a huge wave. The 1977 Coast Guard report promoting this theory proposed that because an easing of cargo regulations over the years had permitted heavier loads, the ship was riding very low in the water—more than 3 feet lower in 1975 than would have been allowed when she was launched in 1958.

Another theory has the Fitzgerald hitting bottom in a shallow area off Caribou Island, causing the ship to break her back. This, in turn. wou]d have allowed water into the hold. Even though the ship would be able to continue for several hours, it may have finally been broken into two

pieces by the better than 30-toot seas that were breaking over the deck.

A third theory suggests that the Fitzgerald was broken apart by the pounding of the towering seas, as a result of existing hull damage. During an earlier routine Coast Guard inspection, some major fore and aft steel structural members were found to be already buckled and twisted and that damage was so extensive that the Coast Guard ordered Columbia Steamship Lines to repair the ship~ however. Columbia was granted two extensions by the Coast Guard (unconfirmed) since the firm did not want to take the ship out of service during the peak of the shipping season.

A final theory states that the Fitzgerald was in one piece when a series of three larger waves ("three sisters") drove the bow under with no chance of recovery. Since the water was 535 feet deep and the ship was 729 feet long—depending on the angle the ship went down—as much as 150 feet of the stern section of the ship could have been out of the water as she was going down. When this happened. the weight of the stern section and the supposed fact that it already had previous damage weakening the hull could have allowed the stern section to twist and tear itself from the rest of the ship, sinking to the bottom and landing upside down—accounting for the separation between the two pieces.

Documentation Methodology

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution researchers were using the submersible support ship Edwin Link and three-man submersible C/ella in conducting scientific research in the Great Lakes during the summer of 1994. This presented an opportunity to utilize a state-of-the-art manned submersible to document, with high-quality video and still photography, the condition of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Clella, a PC-1204 submersible built by Perry Oceanographics in 1976. was refitted as a research submersible in 1992 by Harbor Branch. The vehicle can accommodate two scientists / observers and a pilot, allowing excellent visibility through the forward acrylic hemisphere. The proximity of the occupants to the bottom allows tasks to be completed in areas of low’ visibility. Clella is outfitted with active sonar, still and video cameras, and a seven-function hydraulic manipulator equipped with various sampling devices. The ability to ballast the Clelia to an absolute neutral buoyancy created an extremely stable platform for photo and video documentation as well as observations by expedition members.

A key advantage to utilizing a manned submersible versus a tethered ROV was in not having to use thrusters to maintain a given depth or position. Additionally, an autonomous manned submersible was considered capable of more precise surveying of the wreck site than a ROV, which tends to stir up sediments that have settled on the wreckage, reducing the already limited visibility.

Upon arrival at the wreck site, HBOI’s purpose-built rescue ROV was deployed to determine whether any hazards existed that could inhibit manned submersible operations. Several heavy lines and other loose debris on the Fitzgerald were determined not to be dangerous to submersible

operations since they were lying flat on the deck or on the bottom. Additionally, the condition of the wreck was determined to be solid, indicating no deterioration from its 19 years underwater.

Paint, wood, metal, and even rope were in excellent condition. This meant that if a vehicle was to touch the wreckage, it would not fall apart or collapse.

With a feeling of confidence, we launched the I ,000-foot-rated Clelia to begin a series of six dives for the purpose of documenting as much of the wreck as possible in three days. In addition to the submersible’s externally mounted Photosea TV3000T video and Benthos still camera, the hull of the submersible and its forward acrylic hemisphere were utilized as a large camera housing enabling vidoegraphers to obtain high-speed Beta close-up video of all areas of the wreck. The Clella is outfitted with two 500-watt metal-halide H Ml lights that illuminated the area in front of the submersible, providing almost-daylight conditions at 535 feet.

Some Remarkable Findings

The most remarkable aspect of the wreck site was the condition of the glacial mud that was displaced by the bow of the Edmund Fitzgerald as it hit bottom—plowing a furrow as long as the bow section itself some 30 feet deep—indicating that the ship hit bottom with considerable forward motion and lending credence to the theory that the stern section did not separate until the bow section hit bottom. The displaced mud still has sharp edges and is covered with taconite pellets for hundreds of feet around the wreckage. The fact that the pellets are barely covered with silt after 19 years and that the edges of the displaced mud are not rounded off indicates that there has been virtually no current on the bottom.

The stern section lies upside down approximately 200 feet to the north of the bow section with a large debris field in between.

As the submersible approached the wreckage for the first time, a wall of reddish-colored steel appeared in front of the vehicle. The 20-foot long Clelia was barely a speck on the side of the towering hull ofthe Fitzgerald, an anxious moment for the submersible pilots. The submersible then proceeded from the starboard side up toward the bow with caution. This first dive provided the pilots with the logistical information that enabled the series ofdives to proceed with the confidence of having been there once.

On subsequent dives, very precise documentation utilizing video and still cameras was accomplished and, by varying the location of the submersible’s lights, we were able to look inside the huge cracks in the bow section that began at the main deck level on the starboard side and continued down underneath and back up to the main deck level on the port side. Additionally, we placed an HMI light on a pan-and-tilt and were able to direct the light inside the bridge through one of the forward windows. The submersible was able to sit on the bulwarks directly in front of the bridge. This enabled a videographer to obtain very precise video footage of the inside of the wheelhouse. The ship’s wheel and engine telegraph were clearly visible. It appeared that the telegraph was in the full-ahead position as the levers were pointed forward toward the bow. An enormous amount of debris was piled up on the aft bulkhead of the wheelhouse, indicating the ship had forward movement as she hit bottom.

Another area of interest was the position of the doors to the wheelhouse. The starboard door remained closed and the port door was in an open position. Upon close inspection. it did not appear to be forcibly open.

Some New Evidence

The stem post (the foremost member of the vessel rising vertically from the fore end of the keel and approximately 4 inches in width) was bent almost 900 to the starboard side, indicating that the vessel hit bottom with tremendous force. This was not previously observed.

During careful documentation of the 250-foot bow section, at least two of the ballast tank vents were missing or damaged just aft of the bridge, perhaps the ones that Capt. McSorley reported missing during a radio communication. Additionally, all but two of the cargo hold covers were gone and the holds were so large that the submersible on one dive descended into one, not realizing it. Inspection of the torn and twisted aft part of the bow section revealed that the keel was twisted like a pretzel and folded back over the cargo hold.

The area in between the bow and stern section consists mostly of debris from approximately 200 feet of missing cargo hold. Huge pieces of twisted steel, hull plating, and possibly cargo hold covers are scattered about.

The stern section lies upside down its huge propeller and rudder virtually intact, testimony to its great power. The Fitzgerald was one of the fastest ore carriers on the Great Lakes. One of the life boat davits and a large section of line is wrapped around the propeller, providing evidence that the half of the life boat recovered by the Roesch was cut in half by the propeller while the stern section was sinking. This new information supports the theory that the propeller was still turning while the ship sank.

Most of the crew is believed to be entombed in the stern section. While we did not discover any bodies, a subsequent mission located a body near the bow section.

A future mission may eventually further document the twisted and torn area of separation and perhaps recover the ship’s bell or some other identifiable object to be included in the planned memorial at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan.

On November 11th, 1975, the Reverend Richard W. Ingalls. the rector of Old Mariners’ Church in downtown Detroit. tolled the church bell 29 times—once for each crewman on the Fitzgerald. What was thought to be a private ceremony was discovered by the media and has become an annual service memoralizing the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I was privileged to attend the 19th annual memorial service and meet a number of the family members and retired ships’ Captains who provided me with a wealth of information.

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