Lake Erie Tragedy Echoes in December Winds

The snow and the gale winds of this first week of December are not unusual for this time of the season, but for those late autumn mariners on the Great Lakes, the howling winds can strike fear into the heart. This past week marked the 68th anniversary of the sinking of not one, but two commercial vessels in one of these December storms. The ships were the Admiral and the Cleveco and theirs is a tragic tale with a heavy loss of life. On December 2nd, 1942, during a late season blizzard n Lake Erie, a tug boat, named the Admiral was towing a large oil-tanker barge, the Cleveco, from Toledo to Cleveland when it got caught in the fierce storm as it approached Cleveland's harbor. Without warning, in 18 foot waves and blinding snows, the Admiral dropped out of sight - presumably sinking to the bottom of the lake. When the 18 sailors aboard the 260 foot Cleveco, felt the towline go limp they were terrified. The Cleveco did not have its own means of propulsion. Carrying more than a million gallons of number 6 fuel oil in her tanks, the Cleveco was left to drift in the whims of a vicious wind. The crew had few options except to radio for help and brace for the worst. Within hours, a Coast Guard cutter was able to get close to the foundering tanker, but because of the 18 foot waves, it was unable to attach a towline. Then the 260-foot Cleveco vanished. Searchers looked for hours but couldn't find any sign of the big barge until the bodies of several crew members washed ashore near Cleveland. The worst fears were realized and it was conceded that the Cleveco had also gone to a watery grave. In all, 32 sailors aboard both ships were lost in what would be the last major shipwreck tragedy on Lake Erie to this day. The story however didn't end in 1942. The Cleveco had been loaded with a vast cargo of oil, prompting fears that if another ship were to collide with the wreckage, it could result in an environmental disaster on the lake. So, in the summer of 1961, efforts were made to bring the Cleveco to the surface so the oil could be pumped off, but more bad weather cut those efforts short and it was decided to tow the Cleveco out to deeper water and allow it to sink again where it would not be a hazard to navigation. Unfortunately, the haunting presence of this massive amount of fuel oil was a potential environmental time bomb. If the oil tanks ever did rupture, the entire North Coast of Lake Erie could be fouled by oil for decades. In 1995, after a sheen of leaking oil was detected on the surface of the lake, the Coast Guard and other salvage crews embarked on a mission to save Ohio's shoreline from this environmental threat. Salvage divers were able to get down to the overturned tanker where they at attached valves and hoses and pumped off the oil from the Cleveco's tanks.. More than 340,000 gallons were recovered and it's now believed that the Cleveco, resting in 78 feet water 14 miles from Euclid Ohio no longer poses a threat. The shipwrecks sites of both the Admiral and the Cleveco have become popular sites for divers in recent years and their story and the stories of the crew remains locked in the past, but still echoes in the winds of December.