The Bell Recovery

In November 1994 The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) was invited to Mariner's Church in Detroit, Michigan because of concern expressed by family members surviving the Fitzgerald's lost crew. Advancements in diving technology were allowing more and more divers to visit the wrecksite. As the Fitzgerald is the final resting-place for their beloved husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, the families were not in favor of the site being disturbed.

GLSHS Executive Director Tom Farnquist, and Tim Ascew, Director of Marine Operations for Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, listened to the families' plea that their grief was still painfully acute after nearly 20 years. The families were seeking a way to bring closure to their feelings of loss.

The discussion led to the families' suggestion that one, single significant artifact be recovered from the wreck to serve as a symbolic memorial. The ship's bell, which was attached to the roof of the pilothouse, was unanimously selected to serve this important purpose. Further, it was suggested that a replica bell, inscribed with the names of the lost crewmen, be placed on the wreck as a permanent grave marker.

Following this meeting, GLSHS set to work contacting a long list of U.S. and Canadian governmental agencies and owners of the wreck. It was also necessary to locate and secure nautical vessel support, underwater contractors, and contributors. In June of 1995, the Canadian Government granted permission to recover the bell on humanitarian grounds. Recovery was set for Tuesday, July 4, 1995.

Preliminary Dives

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The Canadian Navy's HMCS Cormorant lowers submersible SDL-1 over the Fitzgerald wrecksite. GLSHS photo by Jene Quirin

Towards the end of June, a small fleet gathered over the wrecksite off Whitefish Point. The primary vessels were the HMCS Cormorant, a 245-foot Canadian Navy ship, with two submersibles aboard, the SDL-1 and Pisces IV; the Anglian Lady, one of the largest tugboats on the Great Lakes, based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; the Antiquarian, the Shipwreck Society's primary diving vessel; and the Northlander, an 85-foot private yacht owned by David Dalquist of Duluth, Minnesota to carry the family members to the recovery site. Two smaller craft, donated by Four Winns, were used as shuttles.

Preliminary dives were conducted from HMCS Cormorant using manned submersibles during the week preceding the recovery. National Geographic sent its most qualified underwater photographer, Emory Kristof, to help organize the expedition. Kristof was one of the first men to visit Titanic in her underwater habitat.

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The Canadian Navy Submersible SDL-1 and Pisces IV assist while NEWTSUIT operator Bruce Fuoco cuts the Fitzgerald's bell free. Illustration by Peter Rindlisbacher

Monday, July 3, 1995 the tug Anglian Lady positioned herself above the Fitzgerald wreck site. A series of dives using the NEWTSUIT diving system, designed and constructed by Phil Nuytten of Vancouver, BC prepared for the delicate procedure of recovering the bell. NEWTSUIT Diver Bruce Fuoco worked late into the evening of July 3 at a depth of 535 feet. A special underwater cutting torch was used to separate the bell from the roof of the pilothouse.

Sony Corporation loaned the use of its prototype High Definition Television Camera and provided technician Jeffrey Cree for support of filming the Fitzgerald bell recovery. The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians backed the expedition by co-signing a loan in the amount of $250,000. GLSHS retired the entire debt in 1998 without any outside financial assistance.

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Breaking the Surface

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The Fitzgerald's bell emerges after 20 years in the depths of Lake Superior. Photo by Al Kamuda, Detroit Free Press

With everything in place, the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald broke water at 1:25 pm July 4, 1995 as
family members watched aboard Northlander. A wreath was placed on the water following the recovery. Family members there that day finally had the opportunity to express their grief, say goodbye and for some, bring closure after 20 years. Shortly thereafter, the replica bell was placed on the pilothouse in the same location as the original bell, again by NEWTSUIT.

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Cheryl Rozman, daughter of Watchman Ransom Cundy, experiences an emotional moment while touching the Fitzgerald's bell for the first time.

The bell was transported aboard HMCS Cormorant to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where it was respectfully displayed to the public. On Friday, July 7, the bell was formally presented to the family members by Diane Cunningham, Ontario Minister of Inter-Governmental Affairs. In a ceremony titled "Call to the Last Watch" the bell was then tolled 30 times, 29 for each man who lost his life on the Fitzgerald, with the final toll for all sailors who have died on the Great Lakes.

Cleaning and Restoration of the Fitzgerald's Bell

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The Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management (CMURM) of Michigan State University performed the initial cleaning of the bell in July of 1995, immediately following the recovery by GLSHS on July 4. CMURM then delivered the bell to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. From there, GLSHS continued restoring the bell for use as the centerpiece of a memorial to the 29 men who died in the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The bell's Memorial display can be seen at the Shipwreck Museum each season, from mid-May to mid-October. The Museum is open every day during this season from 10 am to 6 pm. The Fitzgerald exhibit in the Museum also includes a full-size replica of the NEWTSUIT.

Shop the Shipwreck Coast Museum Store online for books, videos, prints and memorabilia on the loss and legacy of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.

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