Lack of Watertight Bulkheads
Mark Thompson, a merchant seaman and author of numerous books on Great Lakes shipping, stated that if her cargo holds had watertight subdivisions, "the Fitzgerald could have made it into Whitefish Bay." Frederick Stonehouse also held that the lack of watertight bulkheads caused the Fitzgerald to sink. He said:
The Great Lakes ore carrier is the most commercially efficient vessel in the shipping trade today. But it's nothing but a motorized barge! It's the unsafest commercial vessel afloat. It has virtually no watertight integrity. Theoretically, a one-inch puncture in the cargo hold will sink it.
Stonehouse called on ship designers and builders to design lake carriers more like ships rather than "motorized super-barges" making the following comparison:
Contrast this with the story of the SS Maumee, an oceangoing tanker that struck an iceberg near the South Pole recently. The collision tore a hole in the ship's bow large enough to drive a truck through, but the Maumee was able travel halfway around the world to a repair yard, without difficulty, because she was fitted with watertight bulkheads.
After the Fitzgerald foundered, Great Lakes shipping companies were accused of valuing cargo payloads more than human life, since the vessel's cargo hold of 860,950 cubic feet (24,379 m3) had been divided by two non-watertight traverse "screen" bulkheads. The NTSB Fitzgerald investigation concluded that Great Lakes freighters should be constructed with watertight bulkheads in their cargo holds.
The USCG had proposed rules for watertight bulkheads in Great Lakes vessels as far back as the sinking of the Morrell in 1966 and did so again after the sinking of the Fitzgerald, arguing that this would allow ships to make it to refuge or at least allow crew members to abandon ship in an orderly fashion. The LCA represented the Great Lakes fleet owners and was able to forestall watertight subdivision regulations by arguing that this would cause economic hardship for vessel operators. A few vessel operators have built Great Lakes ships with watertight subdivisions in the cargo holds since 1975, but most vessels operating on the lakes cannot prevent flooding of the entire cargo hold area.
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