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Connect the Dates: Maritime Disasters

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Some threads weave throughout history, connecting people, events and dates. The way those threads come together can be surprising and fascinating.

November 9-15

Some threads weave throughout history, connecting people, events and dates. The way those threads come together can be surprising and fascinating. In this new series, we explore historical intersections and cast a light on unlikely connections. This week, we remember those who have died in shipwrecks.

Gordon Lightfoot sang of the early-fall conditions that can spell disaster for a ship: "The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy." The Edmund Fitzgerald, the doomed ship Lightfoot sang about, was one of many that took their final voyages this week in history. We remember a few of those shipwrecks, beginning with the most recent – and most famous.

1975: The SS Edmund Fitzgerald is lost in Lake Superior. We think of shipwreck victims who were lost at sea, often forgetting that deadly shipwrecks also occur in lakes – especially in the Great Lakes, large enough to be considered inland seas. And the Edmund Fitzgerald's mysterious end was equal to any ship's disaster in saltwater. On Nov. 9, 1975, a 29-man crew set out on the freighter, hauling ore from Superior, Wisconsin, to Michigan's Zug Island. The next day, a Great Lakes storm began swirling around the ship, with gale-force winds whipping the waves up to 25 feet. Many ships struggled in the storm, but no one knows exactly what happened to the Fitzgerald. No distress calls were logged – its last communication was to assure a nearby captain, "We are holding our own." Just minutes later, the Fitzgerald dropped off radar and failed to respond to communications attempts. Nearby freighters joined the Coast Guard in a multiday search-and-rescue mission, but all they found was a bit of debris. The Fitzgerald was at the bottom of the lake, and none of its crewmen were recovered, alive or dead.

As the facts were pieced together in the months and years that followed, the conclusion was that the Edmund Fitzgerald was thoroughly destroyed, breaking apart on the lake's surface and then quickly sinking. The remains of one crewman were found some 20 years later by divers exploring the ship's wreckage.

1965: The SS Yarmouth Castle burns. The Yarmouth Castle was a steamship running pleasure cruises, and it set out Nov. 12, 1965, from Miami, Florida, to Nassau, Bahamas, carrying 376 passengers and 176 crew. One ill-considered storage room, filled with mattresses and paint cans, led to the ship's disastrous end. Stacked high, too close to a ceiling light fixture, a mattress began to smolder. The flames were fueled by the nearby flammable material, and the fire spread quickly throughout the ship. It was 1 a.m., and many of the passengers were asleep. Surely they'd be awakened by the fire alarms and sprinklers … but they malfunctioned and never went off. It was the fire itself that finally woke people, and further malfunctions made it hard for them to escape: The firehoses had woefully low water pressure; a number of the lifeboats burned before they could be deployed; and the lifeboats that remained had no oarlocks and had to be paddled inefficiently like canoes. A number of passengers and crew did escape despite these challenges, but in the end, when the Yarmouth Castle sank, five hours after the fire began, 87 people went with it. Three others died later of injuries sustained in the fire.

The legacy of the Yarmouth Castle disaster was, ultimately, a positive one: The laws concerning shipboard safety features were updated, virtually ensuring that the perfect storm of problems aboard the doomed cruise ship would never occur again on another vessel.

1928: The SS Vestris sinks off the coast of Virginia. The SS Vestris was a passenger steamship, used for a route from New York to South America. It set out on this route Nov. 10, 1928, carrying 325 passengers and crew. The route was familiar, but as with the Fitzgerald, a storm got the better of the ship. As it began to list to starboard, its crew sent out distress signals, but got their position wrong by about 37 miles, and rescue crews didn't arrive until hours after the Vestris sank. Though many were able to board lifeboats, poor planning led to a number of those lifeboats going down with the ship. In all, 111 passengers and crew died, many of them women and children. The disaster was major news to a country not too far removed from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Investigations into the sinking found that the lifeboats and life preservers, like those on the Yarmouth Castle, were improperly maintained. New safety regulations were devised the following year, probably at least in part in response to the Vestris disaster.

1847: The Stephen Whitney wrecks off the coast of Ireland. The Stephen Whitney was a sailing ship designed to handle the sometimes rough crossing of the Atlantic between New York and the British Isles. And it did make the crossing successfully this time around – almost. The Whitney left New York Oct. 18, 1847, carrying 110 passengers and crew, and began to approach Ireland Nov. 10. But the fog was thick, and the captain misread what he was seeing through it, assuming from the positions of lighthouses that he was not as close to West Calf Island as he was. The ship struck the island and was quickly destroyed, with a massive loss of life: Of the 110 aboard the ship, only 18 survived. This was another of the wrecks that prompted change: A few years later, a new lighthouse was built farther from the mainland, assisting captains in years to come as they approached the shore.