Thirty-eight years ago, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a Lake Superior storm in 1975, along with its entire crew of 29, including two young men from Ashtabula.
Karl Peckol, 20, was the youngest crew member aboard the Great Lakes freighter. He was a watchman.
Peckol was a graduate of Ashtabula High School. A former classmate posted on an Edmund Fitzgerald tribute page online that Peckol played first chair clarinet in the high school band under the direction of Hector Martinez.
The classmate described Peckol as “kind-hearted, but quiet and always with a sheepish grin on his face.”
According to a blog post detailing the wreck of the ship, Peckol, unlike many of the other crew members, was working toward going to college and was not a die-hard sailor, but he never got that chance.
Paul Riippa, 22, was a deckhand on the Fitzgerald during its final voyage. According to the book by Michael Schumacher titled “The Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Riippa had previously worked on the Ashland. He came to work on the Fitzgerald because he was unhappy on the Ashland.
The book describes Riippa as “an intensely religious man given to reading the Bible in his off hours.”
Not only were two of its crew members Ashtabula natives, the Edmund Fitzgerald frequently came into Ashtabula Harbor, said Bob Frisbie, director of the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum.
“That’s probably why those men signed up to be on the ship,” he said.
Frisbie said Peckol and Riippa may have signed on to work on the Fitzgerald so they could visit their families when the freighter came into the Harbor.
A model of the Fitzgerald is on display at the museum as well as a model of the Arthur M. Anderson, the ship that accompanied the Fitzgerald on that final voyage.
The Fitzgerald left Wisconsin at 2:15 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1975 under the command of Capt. Ernest McSorley. She was en route to the steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit, Mich. with a cargo of 26,116 long tons of taconite ore pellets.
The Fitzgerald joined the Anderson, under the command of Capt. Jessie B. “Bernie” Cooper, destined for Gary, Ind., at about 5 p.m. The weather forecast predicted a storm would pass just south of Lake Superior by 7 a.m. on Nov. 10, according to Wikipedia.
At 7 p.m. on Nov. 9, the National Weather Service altered its forecast, issuing gale warnings for the whole of Lake Superior. The Anderson and the Fitzgerald altered course northward seeking shelter along the Canadian coast where they encountered a winter storm at 1 a.m. on Nov. 10, according to Wikipedia.
The Fitzgerald reported winds of 52 knots and waves 10 feet high. At 2 a.m. on Nov. 10, the NWS upgraded their warnings from gale to storm, forecasting winds of 35 to 50 knots. The Fitzgerald had been following the Anderson, but pulled ahead at about 3 a.m.
The Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald, which was about 16 miles ahead, at about 2:45 p.m. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., McSorley radioed the Anderson to report the Fitzgerald was taking on water and had lost two vent covers and a fence railing, according to Wikipedia.
By late afternoon on Nov. 10, winds more than 50 knots were recorded by ships and observation points across eastern Lake Superior. The Anderson logged sustained winds as high as 58 knots while waves increased to as high as 25 feet by 6 p.m., according to Wikipedia.
The last communication from the Fitzgerald came at approximately 7:10 p.m., when the Anderson notified the Fitzgerald of an upbound ship and asked how she was doing. McSorley reported, “We are holding our own,” according to Wikipedia.
Moments later, the Fitzgerald sank. No distress signal was received and 10 minutes later the Anderson could neither raise the Fitzgerald by radio, nor detect her on radar, according to Wikipedia.
Cooper notified the U.S. Coast Guard that it lost sight of the Fitzgerald and expressed concern that it went down. The USCG ship was out of service at the time and asked the Anderson to go back out and look for survivors, but none were found, Frisbie said.
There are several theories as to why the Fitzgerald went down, but the only ones who know for sure are the 29 members of the crew that went down with it.
As the Gordon Lightfoot song says, “‘Superior,’ they said, ‘never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early!’”