CADILLAC — Seeing the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald crest the surface after 20 years residing more than 500 feet beneath the crashing waves of Lake Superior, Ron Scott had to remind himself this was really happening.
"It was kind of an unbelievable thing," said Scott, an 84-year-old former underwater demolition expert and rescue diver who now lives in Cadillac.
Scott was with a team of Americans and Canadians who in 1995 traveled to the site of the Edmund Fitzgerald's watery grave. Their mission was simple: collect the bell on top of the pilot's house, replace it with a replica that featured the engraved names of the 29 crewmen who perished in the shipwreck, and bring the old bell to the surface to be displayed as a memorial at Whitefish Point.
Sunday, Nov. 10 marks the 44th anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald's sinking, and Scott's memories of retrieving the bell more than two decades ago are as fresh as they've ever been.
Scott is a bit of connoisseur when it comes to famous shipwrecks and his basement is a testament to this interest: it is covered in pictures and memorabilia related to the Titanic, Edmund Fitzgerald and other vessels. One of Scott's most interesting items is a piece of rope that was reportedly taken from the lifeboat of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was recovered after the ship went down.
The Edmund Fitzgerald was an iron ore-hauling vessel that had a route that started in Superior, Wisconsin and took it across Lake Superior and through Lake Huron. Its final destination was Detroit, where the ore was removed. When it was built in the 1950s, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest vessel to travel in the Great Lakes.
That night in 1975, Scott said a severe and unexpected storm forced the Edmund Fitzgerald and other vessels to adjust their travel route through Lake Superior.
There are a number of theories as to how the ship sank. One is that the crew forgot to shut the ore hatches, allowing water into the ship, eventually causing it to become overburdened and sink. Another is that two huge waves at the bow and stern lifted the boat and caused it to snap in two. Scott has spoken at length with Gary Cooper, captain of an ore hauling vessel that was following behind the Edmund Fitzgerald that night; his theory is that the underside of the boat was damaged when it scrapped across some uncharted shoals in an area they didn't normally travel but were forced to because of the storm.
However it happened, the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald has become a cultural fascination, inspiring a number of tributes — including a popular song by Gordon Lightfoot — and some controversy, when family members objected to the cottage industry rapidly growing around the wreck's commercialization.
One of the organizers of the 1995 expedition to retrieve the bell was Tom Farnquist, who knew Scott and asked him to be involved in the project.
"I taught him how to dive," Scott said in reference to how he knew Farnquist.
Scott's role in the project would be as an aid to Farnquist. Scott had a number of governmental contacts with both American and Canadian agencies through his work as a SCUBA diver and with the U.S. Forest Service.
One of the Canadians donned what was referred to as a "Newt Suit," which was new technology that allowed divers to swim deeper and return to the surface within hours instead of having to spend days inside a decompression chamber to prevent the bends. Once at the site of the wreck, the diver in the Newt Suit used an underwater blow torch to remove the bell, which was hauled to the surface using a crane.
When he found out he'd be involved in the project, Scott contacted Four Winns in Cadillac, which donated several of their boats to ferry family members of the deceased crewmen to the site.
"I think it really brought some closure for a lot of families," Scott said.
Shortly after the expedition, organizers held a commemorative gathering at Whitefish Point to display the bell. Scott remembers the weather was cold and stormy — unusual for July but similar to how it looked that November day in 1975.
"It was like the good Lord was telling us something," Scott said.
Today, the Edmund Fitzgerald's bell can be seen at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.