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The SS Edmund Fitzgerald: The Largest Sinking on the Great Lakes

Written by Dave Page

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edmund_Fitzgerald,_1971,_3_of_4_(restored).jpg

Launched on the 8th of June 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald was a maximum sized Great Lakes bulk carrier built by Great Lakes engineering works of Ecorse, Michigan under contract from North western mutual life insurance company of Milwaukee.

At 729 feet or 222 m and with a maximum capacity of 25,400 tons of cargo, she was the longest ship on the Great Lakes, earning her the title “Queen of the Lakes”.

Throughout her service life she is estimated to have made 748 roundtrips between Wisconsin and Ohio, covering a distance of over 1,000,000 miles – a distance roughly equivalent to 44 trips around the world.

So, what could have possibly led to such a reliable ship vanishing so quickly beneath the waves on that fateful night of the 10th of November 1975?

Unfortunately, due to the loss of all 29 crew members, nobody really knows what happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald. Many theories have been postulated and these range from Bermuda Triangle style conspiracy theories and attempted alien abduction through to wilful negligence and overdue repairs on the part of the Coast Guard and the ships operators. Here, we will explore the one theory that has the most supporting evidence.

It is widely believed that a combination of poor weather forecasting, inaccurate navigational charts and a lack of safety equipment were all major contributing factors in sinking the ship. These, coupled with the fact that the Coast Guard had, on three separate occasions, increased the amount of weight that the ship was allowed to carry, reaching a point where the fully loaded ship sat nearly 3 ½ feet lower in the water than the original designs allowed.

What we Know

On November 9, 1975. Two ships began the journey across Lake Superior.  The SS Edmund Fitzgerald departed from Burlington Northern Railroad Dock No.1, Superior, Wisconsin. It was carrying 26,116  tons of marble-sized taconite pellets made from processed iron ore and was commanded by Captain Ernest M. McSorley. The Edmund Fitzgerald was the faster ship and went on ahead of the Arthur M. Anderson, commanded by Captain Bernie Cooper which had started its journey at Two Harbors, Minnesota. The ships were in frequent radio contact from the moment they left the area at  roughly 2.30pm, and kept 10-15 miles between them as their journey progressed.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edmund_Fitzgerald,_1971,_4_of_4.JPG
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_SS_Arthur_M._Anderson_in_Two_Harbors_Sep_1988_(4505017793).jpg

Both captains were aware of storms approaching from the Great Plains, so agreed to take the northerly course across Lake Superior. This route would afford them some protection from the Highlands on the Canadian shore.

However, throughout the day conditions continued to deteriorate. At 7pm gale warnings were issued and these were upgraded to storm warnings early on the morning of November 10. Conditions were bad, with winds reaching speeds of 50 knots (Or about 58 mph) and wave heights reaching 16 feet (or about 4.7 m). However, neither captain was particularly concerned as they had both piloted their vessels through similar conditions on a number of occasions in the past. Early in the afternoon on November 10 captain Cooper reports that he saw the Fitzgerald passing far too close to 6 Fathoms Shoal, a notoriously dangerous area of shallow water to the north of Caribou Island.

It is at this point that several researchers believe the Fitzgerald sustained serious  damage to her hull.

At 3:30 pm that afternoon, Captain McSorley radioed Captain Cooper and said: “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down. Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?” McSorley was checking down his speed to allow the Anderson to close the distance for safety. Captain Cooper asked McSorley if he had his pumps going, and McSorley said, “Yes, both of them.”

Throughout the afternoon the two ships exchanged several more radio messages but it appears that they were only to discuss navigational data. There are no further reports of trouble until about 6:55pm when captain Cooper reports that the Anderson was hit by a wave large enough to drive the stern of the boat underwater. This was followed by another wave of similar size.

Captain Cooper reports that he watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald and he believes that they were the two that caused the ship to go under.

At about 7:10pm, Morgan Clark, the first mate aboard the Anderson spoke to the Fitzgerald via radio one last time. “Fitzgerald, this is the Anderson. Have you checked down?”

 “Yes, we have.”

“Fitzgerald, we are about 10 miles behind you, and gaining about 1 1/2 miles per hour. Fitzgerald, there is a target 19 miles ahead of us. So the target would be 9 miles on ahead of you.”

“Well,” answered Captain McSorley, “Am I going to clear?”

“Yes, he is going to pass to the west of you.”

“Well, fine.”

“By the way, Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problems?” asked Clark.

“We are holding our own.”

“Okay, fine, I’ll be talking to you later.” Clark signed off.

At about 7:15pm, the Fitzgerald vanished from radar for the final time. Captain Cooper attempted to contact them again at 7:22pm and received no response.

Captain Cooper immediately contacted the other ships in the area to find out whether they had seen or heard anything from the Fitzgerald and, after receiving no positive response, immediately contacted the Coast Guard to express his concerns. The official Coast Guard search started at 8pm.

At 9pm, the Coast Guard contacted captain Cooper again and asked him if he would consider leaving the safety of Whitefish Bay and heading back out to search for the Fitzgerald. Reluctantly, he agreed and with mounting trepidation he and his crew battled the remainder of the storm and eventually located two lifeboats and some debris – but no survivors.

After conducting an extensive search, the Coast Guard located a probable wreck site 17 miles from Whitefish Bay.

In May 1976 this was confirmed to be the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald through the use of a Navy underwater recovery vehicle.

On April 15, 1977 the U.S. Coast Guard released its official report:

 “Subject: S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, official number 277437, sinking in Lake Superior on 10 November 1975 with complete loss of life. Due to the complete lack of any firsthand witnesses, the report says that there is no definitive answer as to why the Fitzgerald went down. However, the report maintains that ‘the most probable cause of the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was (the loss of buoyancy and stability resulting from massive flooding of the cargo hold.’ The report goes on to suggest that this was caused, at least in part, by ineffectual hatch closing.

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However, the Lake Carriers Association  strongly disagreed with the findings of the report, claiming that there is little to no evidence to suggest that there were any such failures with regards to crew members ensuring that all hatches were correctly sealed.

In a letter sent to the National Transportation Safety Board in September, 1977.  They said that they were ‘inclined to accept that Fitzgerald passed over the Six Fathom Shoal Area as reported by Captain Cooper.’ And that extensive damage to the front of the superstructure  lend greater credence to the theory that this is how she sustained the damage which ultimately caused her to sink.

In a recorded interview with the Great Lakes shipwreck historical Society Captain Cooper maintains that he believes Captain McSorley was immediately aware that the ship had sustained irrevocable damage when she passed through six fathoms shoal and from that point on, he knew they were sinking.  The Great Lakes shipwreck historical Society carried out three further investigatory missions to the wreck and the evidence gathered further supports the theory put forward by the Lake Carriers Association and Captain Cooper. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Captain,_SS_Edmund_Fitzgerald_(37090079715).jpg
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The story of the Fitzgerald continues to fascinate people to this day. Several books have been written on the subject and there was even a song released by the artist Gordon Lightfoot which was a massive hit across the United States. However, As the location of the wreck is now registered as an official grave site  it is highly unlikely that any further investigations will be carried out. The bell of the ship is now on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a memorial to  the 29 men who lost their lives aboard the SS Edmond Fitzgerald.

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