MILWAUKEE -- No ship has ever embodied the city of Milwaukee quite like the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, and its lone crew member from Milwaukee characterizes the city just as well as its most famous vessel.
Oliver Champeau was 41 when he embarked on what would be theFitzgerald's final voyage. Today, 40 years after his death, Champeau's family is remembering the man for the softhearted giant that he was.
"He was a big strong guy, but he would wrap his arms around you and you just felt safe," says Debbie Gomez-Felder, Champeau's daughter.
Champeau wasn't from Milwaukee originally, but he'd settled there after growing up in Sturgeon Bay to be closer to Debbie, his then-17-year-old daughter. He had eyes on retiring to Door County and took the Fitzgerald job in hopes of banking some additional money to pay for a home he was building on Clark Lake.
The Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin shortly after 2 p.m. on November 9, 1975. It was headed for Detroit, loaded with 26,000 tons of taconite. Sean Ley with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum says another freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson, accompanied theFitzgerald as it made its way through Lake Superior.
"When they left the weather was fine, but they knew something was coming," he says. "But when it started to dawn the next morning, they realized it was more than they expected."
An unusually strong storm had blown up on the lake, and theFitzgerald and the Anderson found themselves caught in it. As the afternoon of the 10th wore on, the Fitzgerald began to encounter some problems.
"The key part of the story, for as much as we know, is that something happened to the Fitzgerald around 3 to 3:30 that afternoon," says Ley.
Exactly what happened will forever remain a mystery, but Ley believes the Fitzgerald hit a shoal as the two freighters hugged the shore for shelter from the weather. Even slight unexpected contact could have been enough to cause big issues with a ship the size of the 729-foot Fitzgerald, and soon, issues began to develop in earnest.
"Captain [Ernest] McSorley of the Fitzgerald called up the Anderson and said, 'Okay, I've developed a few problems," Ley says. "He had cracked off two ballast tank vents, had a fence rail down, and had taken on a list."
A list meant that the Fitzgerald had taken on water, which would make any vessel more difficult to control, much less one the size of this particular ship, once the biggest on the Great Lakes.
Still, the freighter soldiered on, and at 7:10 p.m. McSorley again radioed Captain Jesse Cooper on the Anderson, saying "we're holding our own." Minutes later, the ship disappeared from the Anderson's radar screen.
It was never seen again.
The Anderson was the only ship in the area, and after hours of convincing the Coast Guard that something had gone horribly wrong, Captain Cooper turned his freighter around and braved the massive storm to look for survivors from the Fitzgerald. None were discovered, but the effort wasn't lost on Gomez-Felder, who still praises the crew's bravery 40 years later.
"I was just so glad that the Anderson turned around and risked their lives," she says.
Gomez-Felder didn't learn of the wreck until the 11th. She was in class at Pius XI High School when she was called to the office and told to get home immediately.
"I thought something happened, because I had to take two buses to get home," she says.
Her mother told her the Fitzgerald was missing when she walked in, and though the news of her father's apparent death was soon confirmed, Gomez-Felder didn't believe it, and it took years for the realization to finally sink in.
"My first thought was, 'well, he's a great swimmer. He'll swim to a cave and I will see him again,'" she says. "I always had hope that at things like my graduation, I would look out at the crowd and he would be there. I looked out when I was receiving my diploma, and he wasn't."
In the four decades since the ship went down, Gomez-Felder has devoted much of her life to protecting the site where the Fitzgeraldwent down. As the 1970's and 80's wore on, more and more divers attempted trips to the site of the wreck, to the dismay of the families who'd lost loved ones. Eventually, the site was designated an official grave, preventing divers from visiting.
Gomez-Felder and other family members connected to the Edmund Fitzgerald made one last trip to the site in the mid-90's to retrieve the ship's bell, which now sits in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Gomez-Felder visits frequently.
"When I see it, it symbolizes more to me than just a bell that came off a ship," she says.
Whitefish Point is only about fifteen miles from the place where theFitzgerald went down, and whenever she visits, Gomez-Felder likes to pay tribute to her father.
"I usually put roses or something from my kids there, and I never feel cold," she says. "The wind is blowing and howling, and sometimes it's raining or snowing, and I don't feel cold."
She and the other families affected by the tragedy continue to lean on each other for support, even 40 years later. Gomez-Felder also turns to the memory of her father to get by. She says Oliver Champeau never would have let her give up, even faced with the loss of her father.
"You have no choice but to go on and get through it," she says. "I think by honoring his memory and keeping our stories alive in our family, it gives me hope that he will never be forgotten."