Kurt J. Kolka
ED BELANGER: REMEMBERING THE EDMUND FITZGERALD
Updated: May 2, 2020
November 09, 2012 | By Kurt J. Kolka
GAYLORD -- “I still have nightmares about it,” said Gaylord resident Ed Belanger as he recalls that night back in 1975 when he was aboard a ship following the Edmund Fitzgerald when it sank in Lake Superior.
A retired Coast Guard and Army SSG/E6 staff sergeant, Belanger has been a medic and part of search and rescue teams during his career. He has been though two hurricanes on the East Coast, but says he has never experienced anything as horrible as that storm 37 years ago.
It started on Sunday, Nov. 9, 1975.
Belanger, then a 20-year-old cadet at Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City, was receiving training aboard the Arthur M. Anderson, docked in Two Harbors, Minn. The crew of 28 men (plus Belanger) had a load of taconite ore pellets to deliver. That afternoon they headed off across Lake Superior, destined for Gary, Ind., on the south end of Lake Michigan.
It was a four- to five-day journey, which included two days alone to cross Lake Superior.
The weather report for their voyage was favorable. A major storm was predicted to pass just south of Lake Superior by 7 a.m. the following day.
At about 5 p.m., the Anderson and her crew were joined in their eastbound journey by a second ship by the name of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was heading for a steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit.
“It was a nice, calm day when we started out,” Belanger said.
However, the weather grew steadily worse as the day progressed.
At 7 p.m., the National Weather Service altered its forecast. Gale warnings were issued for all of Lake Superior.
As a safety precaution, the captains of both ships changed course and followed the Canadian shoreline as winds out of the northwest stirred the waters. They also kept in radio contact as the forecast changed from gales to a full-blown storm.
At 1 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 10, the storm hit in earnest. The Fitzgerald reported winds of 52 knots, or 60 miles an hour. Waves were reaching 10 feet.
Belanger, who was assisting with navigation on the bridge of the Anderson, remembers going through various rain and snow squalls. As the storm became worse, the chefs reported it was too dangerous to cook.
“We were given crackers and peanut butter to eat for about a day and a half,” Belanger said. “My quarters were in the aft of the ship, and the galley was in the forward section.”
The crew would walk the full 740-foot length of the ship holding onto the sides of the hall to steady themselves in the tossing vessel.
The Fitzgerald had been traveling faster than the Anderson and was ahead of it. As the weather grew worse, the Fitzgerald slowed, so the ships could keep within sight of each other.
From the bridge, Belanger could see the stack at the forward section of the ship pitch as it rolled over waves. When squalls came through, they sometimes couldn’t even see the stack at all. Ten-foot waves would come crashing down upon the deck of the Anderson.
The storm eased up for a brief period during that second day as the ships passed through the center of the storm.
Around 2 p.m., however, it began to snow. The Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald. The squalls played havoc with the ship’s radar and other equipment.
By late afternoon, winds had increased to gusts of 75 knots, or 86 miles an hour.
Waves rose, and Belanger recalls times when they could see 35-foot waves towering over the bridge approaching them.
“Other times, we couldn’t see anything below us as we rode the crest of the waves,” he said.
The captain of the Anderson, Jesse B. Cooper, received a radio transmission at 3:30 p.m. from Captain Ernest M. McSorley of the Fitzgerald that the ship was taking on water. It had lost two vent covers and a fence railing.
Then, at 4:10 p.m., the Anderson received another transmission. The Fitzgerald had lost radar. It needed the Anderson to be its eyes.
Cooper contacted the Fitzgerald for the last time at 7:10 p.m. The final words from McSorley were, “We are holding our own.”
“We couldn’t see the Fitzgerald any longer (during the squall),” Belanger said, “and lost track of her on radar. When we came out of the squall, the Fitz was gone.”
Cooper tried alerting the Coast Guard as early as 7:39 p.m. when attempts to contact the Fitzgerald by radio failed, but he couldn’t speak to the officer on duty until 7:54 p.m. At around 9 p.m., with search and rescue possibilities still not immediately available, the Coast Guard asked the Anderson to turn around and look for survivors.
“Our captain told us to turn back around,” Belanger said. “What else could we do? They were our brothers out there. If our ship went down, wouldn’t we want them to come looking for us? So, we picked ourselves up by our bootstraps and kept going. It took us two hours to reach the site where the Fitz went down.”
Another ship, the SS William Clay Ford, which was also in the area, was the first to find debris and a lifeboat.
The Anderson found other pieces of debris, which they brought on board to be identified later. But no trace of the Fitzgerald’s crew was found.
Belanger says he can’t remember exactly how long the Anderson searched for survivors, but they stayed on site until the Coast Guard arrived.
That night had a huge impact on Belanger’s life. It was these events that led him to become involved in search and rescue and also receive medic training.
Belanger says that, as a Christian, he believes that even tragedies can be used for a higher purpose — to help people.
“We all will pass through storms in life,” said Belanger, as he reflects back on the years since that night. “Be it natural like that one, or be it physical or mental. Do we use those stories to impress others, or do we use them to help other people?”
For him, there is no question which he chooses.