November 10, 1975. 3:30 p.m. Fifty miles out of Whitefish Bay. For some, confronted with cataclysmic events, it comes as a sudden realization, an abrupt disunion with the quiet illusion of their lives. For others it was always there, the knowledge that life is, at best, fleeting, and that the odds are plainly stacked against them. They come to this with a faith as deep and satisfying as any religion. They have seen a darker world and know that when faced with omnipresent calamity and mocking fate the path to peace and happiness is, in the end, a choice. It was no different for the twenty-nine brave souls aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald that dark and stormy night. It was the knowledge that sometimes the world just rises up to fall on the hapless and from those whom fate has fled.
Seven hundred and twenty-nine feet from stem to stern, the Fitz ran this night a load of iron ore out of Duluth. Rust red on her hull, drab white on her wheelhouse and aft galley, the ship cut an impressive image for a length of better than two city blocks. She was a legend, drawing gawkers, dreamy-eyed boys, fathers and sons, and those who followed her around the Great Lakes as if she was a Rock star. Her skipper had spent a life at sea, through two wars and nearly twenty years aboard the Fitz. No one knew her as well as Ernest McSorely, no one except perhaps his wheelman and friend of thirty years, John Simmons. Theirs was a bond as deep and intimate as any marriage, with an unspoken language all its own.
It was dark in the wheelhouse, but for the pale lamp of the chart table and the soft green glow of the dual radarscopes. The ceiling was low. Sleet and spray slapped noisily against the flat metal roof. McSorely and Simmons sweated buckets into their heavy rubber rain gear as the ship’s heaters fought to beat back the besieging cold. The room was filled with the scent of men at work, lake water and strong black coffee.
The storm charged out of the plains a day before, giving little indication of any historic intention as it drew strength over Wisconsin. Like a vengeful genie unleashed, the storm burst full and furious into Lake Superior. Ships in port batted down as best they could against this assertion of nature’s ultimate sovereignty. Across that vast and unpredictable inland sea other vessels made for safe harbor, or prayed to God and the bravery of their crews to see them through.
In flashes of lightening and white spray over the bow Simmons cut a dramatic silhouette at the wheel. At sixty-three the wisecracking wheelman was tall with the shoulders of a linebacker. Rivers of white hair swam from his temples and framed piercing brown eyes that scanned the gloom beyond the rain swept windows. Those eyes took in everything with an almost mechanical certainty. There was just the slightest furl to his strong brow, the only hint that the storm worried him more than any he had ever known. The effort to hold the ship on course, as waves hammered her from every side, had become, much to his chagrin, nothing short of a battle…