Interview with John O'Brien
January 7, 2001 and May 26, 2005
John O'Brien is the son of Eugene O'Brien, wheelsman on board the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. John O'Brien lives in Florida and is currently married with two daughters. This transcript contains questions and responses from two interviews (in 2001 and 2005) that he sat down for with Tim
Question: Hello Mr. O'Brien. Your father was Eugene O'Brien, wheelsman. What were some of his duties on the ship? Had he sailed on ships long before the Edmund Fitzgerald, and did he have any previous professions?
Response: His job was to steer the boat basically, and navigate. He has a first mate up there and the captain usually isn't far behind. He had been on boats for 25 or 30 years. He had been on different freighters and he really enjoyed it. He worked at a glass factory for a few years at one point but got laid off and went back to the boat.
Question: As O'Brien's son, you probably remember everything about the moment you found out the ship sank. How did you find out, and what was your initial reaction?
Response: Well, let's see. I found out about it because I was in college and was seventeen. In college, we didn't have cell phones like they do today. A police knocked on my door and told me I needed to call my mother. I was in Columbus Ohio and she was in Toledo, Ohio. I went to a phone booth and she told me how the boat was missing and they didn't know much. Today we know everything instantaneously, but we didn't then. My initial reaction was to go back to Toledo. I wasn't aware of everything or how it happened. I thought initially they may have gotten in lifeboats, but a few days later no one was found in lifeboats, and my dad couldn't swim. So, I knew with thirty foot waves in the cold water of Lake Superior, none of them survived. It is wishful thinking- the people who said they were washed up on islands waiting to be found. In thirty-five degree water, with no lifeboat, in those kind of winds and waves, they weren't going to make it. It only took a few days before we knew exactly what was going on.
Question: After 30 years, there is still no known definitive cause to the sinking, and there are more theories and questions than answers. What do you think happened November 10, 1975?
Response: The most logical explanation seems to be that they hit a shoal for a bunch of reasons: their rails were down on the deck, so the boat could have shifted really hard. It also listed to one side really bad and they were running without both radars, so they weren't really sure where they are, and it was the area they were in. After hearing a bunch of explanations and a bunch of theories, that makes the most sense. There could be more than one thing that happened. A lot of people say hatch covers blew off...maybe that happened too.
Question: The sinking is as much a mystery today as it was in November of 1975. Will we ever know the definite cause behind the sinking, and more so is it even important to know after 30 years?
Response: Well, I think we know about what we are going to know. There is not anyone else currently that I know of trying to come up with a definitive answer. There is a lot of speculation, which adds to the mystique of it. Whatever happened happened quick...since there was know distress call. After 30 years there isn't much more that we need to know. It isn't the end of the world if no one ever figures it out because everyone has their own opinion, and more than one person could be right.
Question: The story of the Edmund Fitzgerald has been recreated in many places, including books, documentaries, gift shops, and museums. Has the wreck become too commercialized, or is this simply a way of remembering the men and the ship? Where do we draw the line between commemoration and exploitation?
Response: Let's see, I don't have a problem with it. I think it is a nice tribute, and people want to be able to remember it. It is a nice tribute, and if people want to buy it there are going to be people who sell it. I don't think that is exploitation. If someone wants to write a book about it or poster, I think it is a tribute. I don't think anybody should be messing with the bodies as technology grows. That is a grave site, but as far as the bodies go, I think it is a very personal issue. If technology were to allow the bodies to be raised, someone may feel they should be able to bring their loved one up, and that is okay for them to feel that way, but I think they should be left alone.
Question: Why is the Edmund Fitzgerald, as one of only 6,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, is so popular compared to other shipwrecks, and do you think interest in the ship is growing or fading?
Response: It is so popular because it is a big ship. I think interest is probably fading. After 30 years, there is a whole generation that wasn't around when it happened, and a large part of one generation that was here but has died. The window of people that know about it is much smaller now. I don't think it will ever totally go away, with all the half hour segments on television. Gordon Lightfoot's song is being played less and less than when it originally was released. Maybe the fading interest is due to more and more happening...much time has passed since it happened.
Question: Some consider the Edmund Fitzgerald merely a wreck site, and feel photography of the ship as well as expeditions are all right. Do you agree? What are your feelings on whether or not future expeditions should be allowed?
Response: I think at this point in time, unless they come out with some new technology comes along that might give a more definitive answer, there have been enough pictures taken and enough dives. It should be left as is. It is a gravesite, and nothing more should be taken from the grave site. This shipwreck had iron ore pellets- it wasn't gold or anything, so there is no real reason to "treasure hunt." I disagree with that. Technology is advancing and advancing, but I don't think it is a good idea to do anymore dives or expeditions.
Question: What is the future of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
Response: I think that the interest will keep dwindling. The family survivors will always tell their kids and such. When I was up for the 25th anniversary, I met several grandchildren. It is being passed on from generation to generation. The families won't forget about it ever- they will keep passing it on, but I think that the public will be less and less informed over time.
Question: Approaching the 30th anniversary, what is going through your mind? Did you ever think the sinking would become such a big thing? How do you think your life has changed as a result of the wreck?
Response: With the 30th anniversary coming along...I reflect every year on it. I just remember my dad for what he wanted to be remembered for. I never thought it would become such a big thing, but my life has changed. It has changed in the sense that I didn't even realize until about 5 years ago this time (on a Sunday night, watching television) that they had brought the bell up five years before and had replaced the old bell with a new one. Then I found out how the family members would ring the bell for there family member. I was pretty sad that I didn't know about it sooner and I wasn't there to ring it for my father. In Florida we don't get much Great Lakes news, so I never knew, but after that program, I called the Shipwreck Museum. I told them I saw the program and I was family and immediately Tom Farnquist gets on the line and said "we've been waiting for your call." I was one of only three families they still were not in contact with. I had a common last name, but I moved out of Ohio only 4 years after the wreck, so there was no way for them to guess where I could have been. They couldn't find me and I didn't know about them. It was just by luck that I got in touch with them. Right after that, Pam Johnson got hold of them, and about 6 months later we had a big reunion and went up to Michigan and had dinner with Tom and went to the services. They did a great job in Whitefish Bay. A couple days later, we went to the Mariner's Church and I met Gordon Lightfoot for the first time. Him as much as anybody has made the legend live on...like the song goes. He was very gracious and stayed and talked with us. There is all kinds of controversy surrounding the bell and this and that. I think everything is fine where it is...everyone has a piece of it. It will never be any less important to me than it was 30 years ago. As time goes on, I think it will fade away, but never 100%.
Question: What are some memories that you have of your father?
Response: Some of my memories of my father. I really only have really good memories- I don't have many bad memories. He liked to laugh and had a good sense of humor. He loved playing cards and visiting people; he was very sociable. Every year we went someplace-a great vacation with just the two of us. Those were great memories. He was always smiling. He was a guy's guy. Contrary to what some books say about him drinking beer-I NEVER remember him drinking liquor or smoking a cigarette. I also remember, his nickname was Red, because he had red hair. Not many people called him Eugene, they called him Red. He was a great guy who treated people how he wanted to be treated.
Question: Looking back on your father's life, how would he want to be remembered, and what legacy did he leave behind?
Response: I'm sure as being a good father...which he was. And as someone who was just happy go lucky and trying to make the world a better place. He always wanted to see me do better than him, and he wanted to see me have a great life. For having a limited education, he was a pretty smart guy. He would have just turned 80...75 years ago, going to school wasn't quite as important as it is today...you helped the family. He didn't ever think he would go to college, but he DID make sure I went to college. Family was very important to him. In the back of his mind, he probably would have liked to be remembered as being a good card player.