November 5, 1996
Shipwreck's mystery endures
By TRALEE PEARCE
Television documentaries are often scored with relevant
music; they're rarely inspired a single song.
But physician and marine scientist Dr. Joseph MacInnis says his latest
project, Shipwreck: The Mystery Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, airing tonight
at 10 on Global, owes a debt to Gordon Lightfoot's famous 1976 ballad
about the fateful journey.
"Without it, frankly, there would have been no documentary,"
says MacInnis, whose first memories of the 1975 Lake Superior tragedy
began with the song, not the event itself.
"I think like everybody else, the event came into my mind through
Gordon Lightfoot's song and, the more I understood the story, the more I
was impressed with the song and how accurate it was."
"More important, it had a mood, a sensitivity that I thought was
remarkable. It's one of the greatest sea songs ever written," he
says, adding that an entire chapter of his upcoming book, Fitzgerald's
Storm, is devoted to Lightfoot's creation.
One of the successes of the song, MacInnis suggests, is its grounding in
the human tragedy -- the 29 lives lost and the families left behind --
of the disaster.
"For me as a physician, it's the human relationships that I'm
interested in. I'm not a shipwreck expert. But I am fascinated with the
relationship between humankind and what I call the great waters,"
he says, comparing the Edmund Fitzgerald's end to that of the Titanic.
"These kinds of events tell us so much about ourselves. It's like a
mirror. We see the Titanic and try to understand that story. To
understand the story of the Fitzgerald, it is, in a sense, the world
On Nov. 10, 1975, what was to have been a routine sail from Superior
Wis. to Sault Ste. Marie, with a load of iron ore, was thwarted by a
nasty winter storm characteristic of the powerful lake.
As one of 6,000 shipwrecks throughout the Great Lakes, the Ed Fitz is
among, MacInnis figures, the highest concentration of shipwrecks in the
world in any one location.
Using diving footage, re-enactments and computer-generated models, the
film explores various theories on how the ship went down --from leaky
cargo hatches to a collision with a jagged underwater shoal.
MacInnis says the ship was too damaged to ever tell us the truth, but
having gone on numerous diving expeditions in the past two years, he
says, whatever the cause, the ship's beating was brutal. It was ripped
in two, leaving hundreds of shattered pieces of the ship's middle strewn
across the lake bottom.
"The thing that struck me was the forces that were released on the
surface of the lake and on the bottom. It's indescribable. It's like an
explosion, with the air trapped inside the ship and the impact of the
ship on the bottom."
In addition to the heartbreaking stories of the families of the 29 dead
sailors, Shipwreck reminds us of the power of Mother Nature.
"It's also the story of a lake that turned into an ocean. A sea
gone mad. And it makes us appreciate nature and respect it.
"At some point, the lake just took over. And that's the message.
Whether we like it or not, nature is in charge."