Interview with Michael Schumacher
May 19, 2005
Mr. Schumacher is an author of MIGHTY FITZ, an account of the Fitzgerald story that will be published by Bloomsbury this fall. He lives in Wisconsin and has published seven other books, but this is his first featuring the Fitzgerald.
Question: Hello Mr. Schumacher. To start off with, how did you become interested in the Edmund Fitzgerald, and how long have you been researching the Edmund Fitzgerald for your upcoming book?
Response: I guess I've been interested in the Edmund Fitzgerald from the beginning. I grew up in Milwaukee, and I still read the Milwaukee papers every day, and I remember the coverage the Fitzgerald received after its sinking. At the time, it didn't have great impact on me, other than my thinking about the members of the crew and feeling badly for their families. I was surprised that a big, modern freighter went down. Then, like so many others, I was captivated by the Gordon Lightfoot song, and it made me think even more about the Fitz and its crew. . . I started researching and writing about the Fitz about 15 years ago, when I became involved in a small-budget documentary on the ship. I amassed a large volume of information at that time, and always hoped to be able to write a full-blown account of the story.
Question: Why another book? What makes your project different from the dozens of other books on the Edmund Fitzgerald?
Response: These are both great questions, and I had to be able to answer them before I began to work in earnest on the book. The "why" part was the easiest to answer: Important historical events will always be repeatedly written about, and I believe it's necessary in order to keep a topic alive in an era of very-limited attention spans. Books go in and out of print; readers move on in their interests. There will always be a need for new books for readers who might not have ever seen (or even heard about) the other books, and for those who have an endless interest in a topic such as the Fitzgerald. Obviously, for the families of the lost crewmen, this is a very "mixed bag": they want their loved ones remembered, but they don't necessarily want to relive the tragedy, over and over, ad nauseam, especially when they don’t know the writer or filmmaker, and they have no way of knowing what that person is going to do with some very sensitive information.
How is the book different? Well, for openers, it is, by nature, a more complete account, in that events have occurred since the other books were published--events that receive coverage, or more extensive coverage, in my book. But the real answer to your question is found in my approach. As you know, the Marine Board of Investigation's report has been a source of controversy and discussion since it was initially released, but the previous books really didn't explore the hearings and background to the report. (They usually mention the hearings, and go straight into the published report.) I wanted to go much deeper. The hearings were held very shortly after the loss of the Fitzgerald, and some of the testimony at those hearings was absolutely riveting. Bernie Cooper, for instance, testified for the first time about ten days after the Fitz went down, and he testified again, about a month later; in addition, his call to U.S. Steel, made at Sault Ste. Marie the day after the Fitz went down, was read into the record, and that's some very dramatic stuff. Other "witnesses," like Chuck Millradt (the Coast Guard officer who basically coordinated the search and rescue mission), Morgan Clark (the first mate on the Anderson), and those onboard other search ships, were also interviewed while the events of November 9-11 were fresh in their minds, before there could be any revisionism so common in history. In my book, I wanted to understand HOW the Marine Board reached its conclusions. I not only went out to Washington D.C. and copied the complete transcripts of the hearings; I also interviewed board members Jim Wilson and Stan Loosmore for their views, then and now. That, along with the statements of the board’s witnesses, added a dimension to the book absent in previous accounts.
Question: Following your extensive research, and your interest in the Edmund Fitzgerald, you have probably formulated opinions about what happened on November 10, 1975. What is your theory on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Response: Well, as you know, everybody has an opinion on how that vessel sank, and, as Jimmie Hobaugh told me, every opinion is valid in that no one will ever have a definitive answer about why the ship sank. The Fitzgerald was a big, powerful ship, and I think it took a combination of factors to bring it down. I don't believe that it simply broke apart on the surface and sank, mainly because the evidence doesn't support it. I've done extensive studies of the Daniel J. Morrell and the Carl D. Bradley--two huge ore boats that broke apart on the surface, and had survivors to tell how it happened--and the Fitzgerald story isn't consistent with what happened in those two cases. Both ships took a short while to sink--certainly enough time for people to get off the ships, and for the ships to issue, or attempt to issue, "mayday" calls. We know this wasn't the case with the Fitz. There was no distress call, and, as far as we know, no one abandoned ship. The wreckage itself also seems to dismiss the breaking apart theory: in the cases of the Morrell and Bradley, the two sections were farther apart than the two sections of the Fitzgerald, and both capsized and sank, relatively slowly, to the bottom of their respective lakes. The Fitzgerald's bow plowed into the bottom of Lake Superior with tremendous force, suggesting the "nose dive" that Bernie Cooper worried about the night the ship went down. But I'm not an authority, so my theories are those of a very amateur sleuth. I tend to believe that the Fitz hit bottom at some point and suffered a serious fracture below the waterline. The fracture wasn't enough to bring the ship down immediately or even quickly, and the Fitz proceeded down Lake Superior, using its pumps and hoping to make it to Whitefish Bay. I also believe that the Fitz was taking on water from the top, very likely from the hatch covers or, at the end, as the result of one or more hatch covers caving in, as the National Transportation Safety Board report suggested. In short, you had water entering the ship from above and below the waterline. In the end, the ship had lost almost all of its freeboard, and was so riding low in the water that it was overwhelmed by one or more waves and took a nosedive.
Question: Will we ever know a true cause to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and after 30 years, is knowing a true cause really that important?
Response: My guess is that we'll never have an absolute, definitive cause of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. There's always a chance that new technology will provide an answer, but I wouldn't count on it. To answer the second part of your question: I'm not sure it's necessary to have a definitive answer. I'm sure the families of the victims would like to have answers, but in the end, it really doesn't matter. Those 29 men are gone, regardless of what actually brought the ship down. One of the compelling aspects of the Edmund Fitzgerald story, to those outside the families of the crew, has been the mystery surrounding the loss. There were no survivors to tell the tale, so we're left with speculation and educational- guessing. So, in a strange sense, the mystery might keep the story alive, and as long as the story is alive, the crewmen will be remembered, much more so than the poor unfortunate souls lost in other shipwrecks.
Question: Tell us a little bit about the process of writing your book. What was it like, from originally getting the idea, to writing, to completion?
Response: I love to research, so, in a way, the early part of the process is the best. Since I had written about the Fitzgerald in the past, I was acquainted with some of the basics and didn’t have to learn the story from scratch. Still, I took pretty much the same approach as I do with all my books. I spent more hours in libraries than I care to recall, copying hundreds and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. I visited any number of websites, including yours, not only for information but also for clues about other areas and sources to explore. Along the way, I took notes on potential photographs for the book, as well as the names of people to interview. I bought any book I could find, not only on the Fitzgerald but also on the Great Lakes, Great Lakes shipping, and the different shipwrecks over the years. Once I felt comfortable that Id had enough background to do a decent interview, I started making my calls and conducting interviews. In comparison to the research, the writing itself, while certainly intense, was relatively easy. I’ve always joked that a non-fiction writer’s job is to avoid screwing up: you have the story, now do something with it. If I’ve done my job, the finished book will be fair and accurate, in the true sense of those words, and it will educate readers while entertaining them. And, most important of all, it will keep the Edmund Fitzgerald story moving ahead to new readers.
Question: The Edmund Fitzgerald has become too commercialized, some would argue. Some even question the need for more books and documentaries. What is your response to this?
Response: Well, any response I give is going to sound self-serving. History, I think, needs to be told and re-told, not only to keep historical figures and events in memory, but, in some cases, to serve as lessons; we don't need to repeat a lot of our history. In the case of the Fitzgerald, it's a difficult call, because there will always be disagreement about what constitutes respectful history, as opposed to commercial exploitation. People will disagree. I think we can all agree that there has been some commercial exploitation of the Fitzgerald, and that it has been hurtful to the families of the crewmen. Some of that exploitation is easy to spot and judge. But what about the rest? I don't believe that there should be a moratorium on the production of books, songs, films, or documentaries on the Fitz, and I think this for a couple of reasons. First of all, there's the issue of determination: who makes the call on who should and should not write about the Fitz? How do they make that determination? For all anyone knows, the truly great book about the Edmund Fitzgerald has yet to be written. The same applies to other projects. Can we assume that Gordon Lightfoot's wonderful song is the end of the matter- that anything else would amount to exploitation? The Lightfoot song is a great case in point. When he wrote “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” he did so because he was deeply moved by the Fitzgerald story, and he wanted to use his own art—in this case, music--to honor and remember the ship and its crew. He wasn't in it for the money and fame. He has been very generous with his donations to Great Lakes maritime causes, and he's been nothing but sensitive toward the family members; in short, he's been as respectful as we would hope. Now who's to say that someone else can't do the same? I understand that many family members no longer want to talk to reporters or cooperate with writers or filmmakers, and that's entirely their right; they've had to relive the tragedy for three decades. Yet, at the same time, I don't think it’s right to think that the final word has been written or filmed on the Fitz, or that there shouldn’t be works created in the future. It’s not fair to future generations or the educational process, it's making assumptions that might not be fair, and, to be absolutely blunt, no one owns history. We can only hope that future writers, songwriters historians, and filmmakers hold up their end of the deal.
Question: Who are some of the people that you have been in contact when researching your book?
Response: I should state, from the onset, that I’m never totally satisfied with my research. There are always more sources I could have interviewed, other avenues that I could have explored. That’s really the given. Other realities dictate some of the process. There are deadlines, as well as time, travel, and money constraints. There’s the issue of space: how much room is a publisher willing to give you, to tell the story? I’m not complaining—it’s the reality of the business. You do the best you can, within the framework of the project. I’m happy with the people I interviewed for this book. I had great interviews with some of the family members, and I talked to people like Captain Don Erickson (commander of the William Clay Ford), Tom Farnquist (director of the shipwreck museum at Whitefish Point, who has explored the wreckage on several occasions), Jimmie Hobaugh (captain of the Woodrush, which searched for the Fitz and conducted the sonar side-scans that eventually located it), Bishop Richard Ingalls of the Mariners’ Church of Detroit, and many others. I’m especially pleased with the research and interviews that I conducted on the Marine Board of Investigation. All told, I feel blessed that people were generous with their time and memories, yet, as always, I wish I’d had the time and opportunity to do even more.
Question: You obviously have a passion for researching the Edmund Fitzgerald. What has kept you interested over the years, and do you think that interest in the Edmund by the (public is growing or fading?
Response: I think there will always be an interest in maritime history, and the Fitz is a big part of that history. I haven't done any kind of study on it, but my guess is that the interest remains steady, and that it "spikes" whenever there is an anniversary or event involving the ship. As you noted, I have a passion for this subject, and I've kept up, as much as I could, on the Fitzgerald news over the years. I would imagine that I'm far from alone in this.
Question: Where can people learn more about the Edmund Fitzgerald, and where did you look for information that aided you in writing your book?
Response: For openers, people can continue visiting your website. There’s always new material being posted, and the forum gives people the chance to share ideas. Take a vacation and visit the Great Lakes Historical Museum at Whitefish Point, or Jimmie Hobaugh’s Valley Camp Museum. Read the other books. Fred Stonehouse’s THE WRECK OF THE EDMUND FITZGERALD is still one of the bibles on the Fitz, and Robert Hemmings’ GALES OF NOVEMBER, is a great read, even if it does have a number of factual errors. As you noted, there’s plenty of information out there. Now go out and get it.
Question: What does the future hold for the Edmund Fitzgerald?
Response: I think there will always be an interest in the Edmund Fitzgerald. It’s historically important, and the story and mystery surrounding its loss are too dramatic for it to be forgotten. For the sake of the families of the lost crewmen, I hope that the story will be respectfully told, whether in books, movies, or whatever. And I certainly hope that someday, somehow, the Canadian government declares the ship a formal gravesite. The families deserve that much.