Sinking of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Despite the fact that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was fitted with various types of communication equipment, there was no evidence that it ever radioed for help, and there were no survivors and no witnesses to its sinking. A fierce November storm defeated the ship and suddenly and mysteriously sent it plummeting to the bottom of Lake Superior.

Summary of Event

The Edmund Fitzgerald suddenly disappeared on Lake Superior during a severe storm on November 10, 1975. All twenty-nine crew members perished, and there were no witnesses. Loaded with 26,116 long tons of taconite, the 729-foot freighter had left Burlington Northern Railroad Dock 1 in Superior, Wisconsin, in the early afternoon of November 9, 1975. A storm, brewing in the Great Plains and heading north toward the Great Lakes, prompted the National Weather Service to issue a gale warning. The warning escalated to a storm warning with weather conditions that included strong winds, hurricane-force gusts, high waves, and blinding snow squalls. As the Fitzgerald battled these treacherous conditions, it sustained considerable damage. It was headed across Lake Superior for Zug Island on the Detroit River to unload before winter layup. Disasters;sinking vessels Disasters;sinking vessels Fitzgerald, Edmund McSorley, Ernest M. Cooper, Jesse B. Ingalls, Richard W.

Lake Superior has been described as the largest, coldest, clearest, deepest, and most dangerous of the Great Lakes. Both the captain and the ship had weathered previous November storms on the lake. Captain Ernest M. McSorley was a veteran mariner with more than forty years of experience. The Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes until 1971 and had set many tonnage records. It was known as the “Pride of the American Flag.” On this trip, it sat more than three feet deeper in the water than usual because of changes in the load-line regulations. This increased the potential for deck flooding in stormy weather.

As the Fitzgerald left the dock, a storm was building in the Great Plains and heading northward. The National Weather Service’s initial forecast predicted the storm would go south of the Great Lakes. Near Two Harbors, Minnesota, McSorley encountered the Arthur M. Anderson, Arthur M. Anderson (ship) captained by Jesse B. Cooper, and they agreed to travel together, with the Fitzgerald steadily in the lead. As the weather became more threatening, they decided to take the northerly route across the lake. Although this was the longer route, it was less exposed and would offer them some protection from the weather near the Canadian shore. By this time, the winds were nearly 50 miles per hour.

In the early morning of November 10, the gale warning was upgraded to a storm warning with potential wind speeds of approximately 60 miles per hour. Both boats continued due east, then southeastward along the north shoreline. At approximately 1:40 p.m., McSorley told Cooper he had just passed Michipicoten Island and that the ship was experiencing some rolling action. As the Fitzgerald was nearing the Six Fathom Shoal, a shallow area north of Caribou Island, a snowstorm developed and the northwest seas rapidly began to build. Although the crew on the Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald as it passed north and east of Caribou Island, they tracked it on radar. Cooper commented that the Fitzgerald was closer to the Six Fathom Shoal than he would want his ship to be.

The Edmund Fitzgrald in May, 1975.

(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Courtesy, Bob Campbell)

Around 3:20 p.m., with steady winds of more than 50 miles per hour and waves as high as 16 feet, McSorley contacted Cooper and advised him that the Fitzgerald was taking on water, that a fence rail was down and two vents were lost or damaged, and that the ship had a list. McSorley said that both his pumps were going and he was checking down his speed to lessen the gap between the Fitzgerald and the Anderson as they proceeded toward Whitefish Bay. Shortly afterward, the Coast Guard issued an emergency broadcast reporting that the Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, locks were closed because of the fierce storm conditions. Within the hour, the Fitzgerald received information from the Swedish vessel Avafors confirming that the Whitefish Point radio beacon and light were not in operating order.

When the pilot of the Avafors called the Fitzgerald with an update on the beacon and light, he heard McSorley yelling that no one was allowed on the deck. McSorley informed the Avafors that the Fitzgerald had a bad list and both radars were gone, and that this was one of the worst seas he had ever experienced. At this point, McSorley radioed the Anderson asking for navigational assistance. Close to 4:55 p.m., the winds were coming with a fury from the northwest between 65 and 70 miles per hour, and the waves were climbing to 18 feet. With growing darkness and visibility near zero, the Fitzgerald radioed the Anderson for position and was advised that Whitefish Point was 35 miles ahead. Hurricane-force winds and waves as high as 30 feet crashed across and pounded the ships. Between 6:30 and 6:55 p.m., two enormous back-to-back waves engulfed the Anderson, plunging its bow momentarily, but terrifyingly, into the sea. These two massive waves were headed toward the Fitzgerald. The Anderson made radio contact with the Fitzgerald two more times by 7:10 p.m., advising of its position and that it would be clearing an approaching ship. Before signing off, the mate on the Anderson asked McSorley how he was making out with his problem and McSorley replied, “We are holding our own.” These are the last words ever heard from the captain and crew on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Anderson lost radar contact with the Fitzgerald because of intensive sea return on the radar. When the Fitzgerald did not respond to radio inquiries by the Anderson, Captain Cooper called the Coast Guard. Because the Coast Guard did not have rescue capabilities in that type of severe weather, it asked the Anderson to turn around and search for the Fitzgerald. The Anderson complied and was the primary vessel in the search, along with the SS William Clay Ford. Debris was spotted but there was no sign of the freighter and no sign of survivors. On November 14, the Coast Guard discovered the wreck using a U.S. Navy plane equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector. The remains of the Fitzgerald were located approximately 17 miles north of Whitefish Point, resting in 530 feet of Canadian waters.

The Fitzgerald unknowingly traveled across the worst possible location during the most extreme weather conditions, and the wind and waves from the west pummeled the freighter broadside as it struggled toward the safety of Whitefish Bay. The morning after the Fitzgerald disappeared, the Reverend Richard W. Ingalls, pastor at Mariners’ Church in Detroit, Michigan, rang the church bell twenty-nine times in a tribute to the crew members of the Edmund Fitzgerald, who ranged in age from twenty to sixty-three. Folksinger Gordon Lightfoot Lightfoot, Gordon immortalized the tragedy in his 1976 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Significance

At the time it sank, the “Big Fitz,” as the seamen called the Edmund Fitzgerald, had just been in radio contact with the SS Arthur M. Anderson. Other ships were on the lake in the vicinity, yet no one heard a distress call. No one witnessed the disappearance of the Fitzgerald. Many theories abound as to the cause of the disaster. Among them are faulty hatch covers, the bottom scraping on the shoal, and structural weaknesses. All, however, are speculation. In May, 1976, photographs taken of the wreck by U.S. Navy underwater equipment revealed that the ship had broken in two, with the bow settling upright and the stern upside down approximately 170 feet away. Several expeditions have visited the wreck site, and still no cause has been determined. The ship was never raised. No bodies were recovered. However, on July 4, 1995, the ship’s bell was recovered and placed in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan.

The sudden and mysterious sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald prompted a reexamination of safety regulations, structural requirements for boats, and Coast Guard rescue capabilities. Attention was also focused on crew survival technologies and the noninterruption of commerce on the Great Lakes for ship owners. Disasters;sinking vessels

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bishop, Hugh E. The Night the Fitz Went Down. Duluth, Minn.: Lake Superior Port Cities, 2000. Captain Dudley J. Paquette’s account of the November 10, 1975, event and his views on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Reports, appendixes, black-and-white photographs, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hemming, Robert J. The Gales of November. San Diego, Calif.: Thunder Bay Press, 1981. Includes short history of the Edmund Fitzgerald, an account of events leading up to the sinking, and comments from family members and friends of the crew. Black-and-white photographs, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramsey, Raymond. “For Whom the Bells Toll: The Unexplained Losses of S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, M.V. Derbyshire, and Other Vessels of the Bulk-Cargo Silent Service.” Great Lakes Mariner 4, no. 3 (2006): 35-36, 42-44. Interview with Raymond Ramsey, naval architect with Great Lakes Engineering Works (GLEW), who participated in ship-performance trials of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stonehouse, Frederick. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Updated ed. Gwinn, Mich.: Avery Color Studios, 1999. One of the most thorough studies available of the event and the surrounding controversy. Includes black-and-white photographs and bibliography.

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