In July of 1975, Bruce Kotila was on the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald and one of the crew members gave him a life jacket. Four months later on November 10th, the Fitzgerald sank in a Lake Superior storm. No one survived. Kotila, who lives in Rhinelander, says the gift is immensely meaningful to him 43 years later.
Mackenzie Martin talked to Kotila and the author of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald about what still resonates with us about the Edmund Fitzgerald today.
43 years ago this Saturday, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a Lake Superior storm. The entire crew of 29 men died and it was one of the worst storms Lake Superior has seen with waves up to 35 feet high and winds up to 75 miles per hour.
The Fitzgerald carried iron ore from mines near Duluth to other Great Lakes ports and the exact cause of the sinking remains unknown, though there are many theories.
Locally, we remember it as the biggest ship to ever sink on the great lakes, but the story received national attention because of singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot.
Bruce Kotila is a local doctor in Rhinelander and everytime he hears “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” it takes him back.
(Listen to the song in full here)
“I can picture the ship in the harbor, in the mess hall, talking with those guys,” he says.
When Kotila was young, he moved to Ashtabula, Ohio on Lake Erie and he’d see ships like the Edmund Fitzgerald pass by.
“And we lived literally 200 meters from the water,” he says. “And I had been unexposed to something as big as the Great Lakes so every so often I’d get my dad’s binoculars and go out and see those giant ships go by.”
When Kotila was in his 20’s, he was working with the Penn Central Railroad. One of his jobs was unloading the very same ships he used to gaze at as a kid.
“The biggest ship on the Great Lakes at that time was the Fitzgerald and whenever that came in, it was so huge it occupied virtually the whole dock,” he says. “I mean, 740 feet. Can you imagine a ship that’s longer than two football fields? We’d occasionally go up on the ship and have coffee with the crew. Talk to those guys. Because they were from all over the Great Lakes area and they all had interesting stories.”
Fast forward to 1975, Kotila is living in Milwaukee. It’s July, and he goes home to Ashtabula to visit his parents. While he’s there, he gets together with a couple of friends he used to work with and one of them says, “Hey, why don’t we go down to the docks? See who’s there?”
So they go down to the dock and it just so happens that the Fitzgerald was in. Kotila thought they should go and see if they knew anyone on board. So they do, and they end up in the ship’s mess hall having coffee with a bunch of young guys on the crew.
So here Bruce Kotila is, a young guy in his 20’s on this great ship, talking to the crew of the Edmond Fitzgerald, and just like when he was a kid, he’s just enamored by the enormity of this ship. He says to one of the guys on the crew, “Gee, someday, I’d like to hang a life jacket off one of these big vessels in my den.” One of the guys casually responds, “Here, take this, we’ve got dozens of them.”
“I reluctantly took it, brought it home, and it’s been a treasure ever since,” says Kotila. “I think it’s extremely special because I think very little came up from the Fitzgerald.”
And that’s the story of how Bruce Kotila was given a life jacket off the great Edmund Fitzgerald, four months before it was lost forever en route to Whitefish Bay.
The life jacket itself is orange, stamped with the name Edmund Fitzgerald. For Kotila, it brings about strong memories of a specific time in his life, memories of unloading ships on Lake Erie and the camaraderie the crew members shared.
“I mean the Great Lakes are mystical in themselves, as are these big steamships,” he says. “If you could be up close and see one like I was able to do, it’s phenomenal. Probably six or seven stories up, with a view that goes for miles across open water.”
Though we can never really know for sure why the Fitzgerald sank, there is recorded radio communication from that night.
You can hear the U.S. Coast Guard asking nearby ships to check in on the Fitzgerald. And you can hear Captain Jesse Cooper of a nearby ship—the SS Arthur M. Anderson—respond that he can go search, but the sea out there sure is “tremendously large.”
(Listen to the audio in full here)
Frederick Stonehouse is a maritime historian in Marquette, MI, and author of the book, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which covers the research and theories that have come out over the years. He says listening to that audio is chilling.
“It’s almost like looking into another dimension,” he says. “You know what happened. And you’re really taking a very sharp hear to the anxiety in those men’s voices, knowing that but for an act of God, it could have been them.”
Stonehouse says part of his job is trying to make sense of an event like this, to understand why it still resonates with people and matters today, when so many other shipwrecks have faded from the public’s mind or were never really there to begin with.
“It’s the Fitzgerald that kind of has come to represent all of those ships and all of those men lost,” he says. “An icon representing the 6,500 ships lost on the lakes... the 30,000 sailors that have lost their lives.”
The other thing that’s important to remember about shipwrecks like this is that it really does make things safer. After the Fitzgerald sank, an investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board resulted in 19 recommendations for the Coast Guard and four recommendations for the American Bureau of Shipping, eventually making shipping on the Great Lakes safer.
“When you see a low pressure system coming through, when you see a pretty significant storm, you’ll see more ships hiding out and seeking shelter than you would have seen when Fitzgerald was still sailing,” says Stonehouse. “And that’s because they remember the Fitzgerald.”
Tomorrow, Frederick Stonehouse will be speaking at Mariner’s Church in Detroit, MI. Some of the family members from the crew of the Fitzgerald will be there.
Different communities around the Great Lakes will also be holding memorials for the crew. They’ll ring a bell 29 times for those lost. Then one more time for all of the other men and ships lost on the Great Lakes.
This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin.
This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.