DETROIT – An apple farmer and his family believe they've found a life ring from the Edmund Fitzgerald roughly 200 miles from where the famed ship sank in Lake Superior 32 years ago.
The orange preserver is worn by the elements has been chewed on by small animals. But it reads "Edmund Fitzgerald" in faded but mostly legible white letters.
No definitive tests had yet been conducted to prove it's a piece of the ore carrier that sank in a vicious storm Nov. 10, 1975, killing 29 men off the northern shore of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But the director of a shipwreck museum says it matches in many ways another ring in its Fitzgerald collection.
"I saw it, photographed it and ... compared the two," said Tom Farnquist, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. "It's identical in size and configuration. ... Is it possible? Certainly it is."
Joe Rasch said he was vacationing with his family last week in the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan's far north. Hunting for rocks along a remote beach, he found the preserver near an overturned tree. His daughters noticed the writing, and realizing its potential significance, they took it to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, owned by the historical society.
There are a few differences between the discovered ring and the one on display. The one Rasch found has no "S.S." before "Edmund Fitzgerald," as the museum's ring does. And the newly found ring reads "Duluth" on its back side.
Farnquist said the differences are puzzling but not without a plausible explanation: The Milwaukee-based ship spent its winters in Duluth, Minn.
There are those who doubt the preserver came from the ship, especially since it was found so far from the Fitzgerald's grave site so many years after the ship sank.
"I am smelling a rat," Frederick Stonehouse, maritime historian and author of a book on the wreck, told The Daily Mining Gazette of Houghton. "It's probably a hoax."
Stonehouse said he finds it hard to believe someone could find a life ring laying out in the open 30 years after the wreck.
Rasch said the ring was not laying in full view and that the area was remote. He said he and Farnquist agreed Rasch would hang on to the ring and bring it to the museum for its annual memorial service marking the anniversary of the sinking.
"Of the 6,000 ships ... lost on the Great Lakes, the Fitzgerald is the Holy Grail of all the shipwrecks," Farnquist said.
"It's an incredible story. Everyone hopes that it's the real thing. But only time will tell and the evidence will need to be acquired."