Interview with Heidi Brabon

May 17, 2005

 Heidi rings the bell in honor of her father at a memorial service at Mariner's Church in Detroit, Michigan.

Heidi rings the bell in honor of her father at a memorial service at Mariner's Church in Detroit, Michigan.

Heidi Brabon is the daughter of Blaine Wilhelm, oiler on board the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.  Heidi is the proud mother of 5 children and is in the Air National Guard, for which she served in Kuwait in these past few years with the war.

Question: Hello Mrs. Brabon.  You are the daughter of Blaine Wilhelm, an oiler on the Edmund Fitzgerald.  What were some of your father's duties, and how long had he been sailing on ships?  How did your father originally get into the shipping industry?
Response: I am not sure how he got into shipping, bur he was in the Navy before he began sailing on the Great Lakes.  He had been sailing for as long as I can remember; I was only 12 when he died.  On the Fitzgerald, he worked in the engine room.

Question: The Edmund Fitzgerald has become by far the most popular wreck of the more than 6,000 Great Lakes shipwrecks.  Why do you think this is?  Why do you think that interest in the Edmund Fitzgerald has grown over 30 years as opposed to fading?
Response: I think that Gordon Lightfoot's song has helped, and it also happened when television was just coming of age. I'm not sure why the interest has grown, maybe people just like knowing the history, but whatever the reason I'm glad the crew isn't forgotten.

Question: Thirty years later, the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a mystery.  The ship left very few clues to the cause of her ultimate demise, and the theories number more than most would care to count.  What is your theory on what happened on November 10, 1975?  What is your response to claims that human error may have played a factor in the sinking?
Response: Given the experience of the crew, I find it hard to believe human error was a factor.  I tend to believe that they may have grounded in shallow water causing the hull to rip open, and they didn't know because of the storm.  The pumps weren't working, so the ship had to be filling with water.  I still remember the storm; my 6 year old was born on the anniversary in another wind storm which was spooky.  That definitely brought back memories.

Question: Will we ever know the true cause to the sinking of the Fitz, and, moreover, is it important that we find out a definitive cause to the wreck?
Response: I'm not sure if it's important to know why it sank- it has been 30 years.  At this point I think all it would do is open wounds that are finally healing for the families.

Question: As Blaine's daughter, you undoubtedly remember the moment you were informed of your father's death.  How did you find out, and what was running through your mind at that instant?
Response: We found out through our neighbors who heard it on the 10 o'clock news.  They came over to tell us they had heard mention of the Fitz, but due to a high school hockey game being televised we had to wait until the game was over to hear that channel's news broadcast.  I remember being so scared and mom being on the phone most of the night trying to get somebody to tell her what was going on.  I think we finally just sort of realized through the news broadcasts that he has not made it; it was on the national news.  My sister was 9 months pregnant, and she had her child 4 days after my dad's death, but her husband had to keep the news from her until the baby's birth.  I don't know how he did it.

Question: The Edmund Fitzgerald is considered merely a wreck site by some, but a grave site by others.  Depending on your feelings, you may support further expeditions and photography of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  Should individuals and organizations desiring to dive aboard the Fitzgerald be permitted?
Response: I don't want to see any more exploration at this point.  I was present for the consecration- it's a gravesite.  What purpose would expeditions serve now?  Let the men be in peace.

Question: Has the Edmund Fitzgerald become too commercialized over the years?  Some would argue that souvenirs are a means of remembering the crew, while others claim it is simply a way of making profit.  What are your feelings on the marketing of Edmund Fitzgerald merchandise?  Is it an honor, or an insult, in your opinion?
Response: Actually, I have some merchandise myself.  I would like to think it helps remember the crew.  I have been to the museum in Whitefish and I have recommended to friends that they should visit if they happen to be in the Upper Peninsula.

Question: I met you in Detroit a few years ago at the Mariners' Church Memorial.  Are there any other memorials or resources that you would recommend to people trying to learn about the wreck or remember the crew?
Response: I think other than the Mariners' Church, the museum at Whitefish Bay is a good source.  There is also another museum called the Valley Camp which is a retired ship from the Great Lakes, and it has things that floated ashore after the wreck.

Question: Being a daughter of one of the crewmen, you heard first hand experiences of life on the Fitzgerald retold.  What was sailing like for your father?
Response: To him I think it was more of a job that just involved being gone a lot, not really his "life."  During the summers he loved being home- we went swimming a lot, but we had to pick blueberries first so he could have pie.  He loved blueberry pie.  He fell overboard once and he had a sign on his door for a long time that read Mark Spitz Jr. and mom kept for years.  I think he enjoyed sailing.  I don't think he liked being away from his children, but it was part of his job.

Question: What is the future of the Edmund Fitzgerald?  Will the "legend live on?"
Answer: I think it will.  I hear the song at work on the Wal-Mart Radio Network.  It was weird, but when I went back to work after mom died earlier this year the first song I remember hearing was The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  I was pretty emotional at the time so it wasn't easy to hear.  But yes, I think the legend will live on.

Question: What are some memories that you have of your father Blaine?
Response: I remember the summers at the lake the most.  We would all go out and barbeque and just goof off all day.  Of course, this was after we picked blueberries, but with 7 kids it didn't take long to get enough for a pie.  Dad loved blueberry pie.  Sometimes he would also go to some of the local bars for what he called "Sunday school" but it was just an excuse to get together with his friends, which he loved.  I remember he would take us with him sometimes, and he always saved ALL of his change from the whole year and split it with all the kids when he got home at the end of the year.

Question: How would your father want to be remembered, looking back on his life?  If there is one thing you will never forget about your father, or a legacy he has left behind, what is it?
Response: I think what he would want people to remember is his children.  I know he was looking forward to being a grandpa, and I know he missed us.  When we were growing up he never had to spank us much because we didn't want to disappoint him.  He took us with him whenever he went anywhere.  To this day, we have a picture of him and mom sitting in the backyard in the grass reading the paper together.  It's one of the few pictures we have of him still.  That's how I would like to remember him, just sitting enjoying life with mom.  It was easier to say goodbye to mom since I know they are together again

Question: What is going through your mind, approaching the 30th anniversary?  Did you ever think it that the Fitzgerald would become such a big thing, going down in history books?  How has your life changed since the 1975 sinking?
Response: I really didn't think it would still be such an event (the anniversary) after all this time.  It's hard to say how my life has changed, I was pretty young at the time, but it was rough growing up without dad.  I never saw him on Christmas. The year he died might have been the first time I would have seen him on Christmas had the boat not gone down.  I know he would have loved it.