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This photograph shows the Edmund Fitzgerald's pilot house. The ship's final resting place is 530 feet beneath the surface of Lake Superior, 17 miles off Whitefish Point on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Photo Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Edmund Fitzgerald sank 36 years ago, 29 died

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It's been 36 years on Thursday since the ore boat Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a violent storm in eastern Lake Superior taking all 29 crew members with her.

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The storm of November 9-10, 1975, ranks among the most powerful to strike the Lake Superior region. Various shoreline reporting stations recorded sustained winds of more than 60 mph, with gusts reaching 85 mph. Conditions on the afternoon of Nov. 9 were peaceful and the lake surface was glassy as the Fitzgerald finished loading taconite pellets at the Burlington Northern docks in Superior, Wis.

Forecasters were predicting a quick change as a storm system approached from the west. Captain Ernest McSorley chose a northeasterly course as he headed the ship to the US Steel plant in Zug Island, Mich., outside of Detroit. This course allowed the ship to hug the northern shoreline of Lake Superior and avoid the full force of the northwest winds.

The Fitzgerald was joined by the ore carrier Arthur M. Anderson, which had departed Two Harbors, Minn. The two ships would brave the trip together.

The National Weather Service issued a storm warning early Nov. 10, forecasting winds of up to 60 mph. As conditions worsened McSorley, radioed the Anderson and reported that he had lost both of his radars and that he needed help with navigation. He then slowed the Fitzgerald so that the Anderson could catch up and be within the 10-mile range of the Anderson's radar.

They followed the Canadian shoreline until reaching the eastern part of the lake where they turned to the southeast toward the relative shelter of Whitefish Bay. Both ships' captains reported waves in excess of 30 feet. Captain Cooper reported that he was having difficulty tracking the Fitzgerald because the waves were so high they were showing up on his radar, obscuring the troubled ship.

McSorley radioed the captain of the foreign ship Avafors to check on conditions. When asked how he was doing, McSorley responded, "I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I've ever been in."

Shortly after the conversation, McSorley told Captain Cooper of the Anderson: "We are holding our own."

That was the last transmission to be received from the Edmund Fitzgerald. Cooper noted he would see the Fitzgerald on his radar for the last time shortly thereafter. After not receiving a response to repeated radio calls, Cooper radioed the Coast Guard station in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.,

"Something bad has happened," Cooper reported.

The Coast Guard asked him to turn around and begin a search. The mountainous waves made this maneuver extremely dangerous. Cooper turned his boat around and was soon joined in the search by the ore carrier William Clay Ford, which had been anchored safely in the shelter of Whitefish Bay.

Several hours later a USCG plane from the Traverse City, Mich., station arrived on the scene and was soon joined by a helicopter carrying a powerful searchlight. A Canadian Coast Guard fixed-wing plane also contributed to the search. No sign of the ship was located.

Eventually the Fitzgerald's lifeboats washed up on the Canadian shore along with other debris. The Fitzgerald and her 29 crew members had disappeared. A survey mission conducted in the summer of 1976 located the ship approximately 14 miles off the Canadian shore just short of the entrance to Whitefish Bay. The Fitzgerald had broken into 2 pieces and was resting on the bottom in 500 feet of water.

Theories abound as to what happened to the Fitzgerald - including possible UFO involvement. The most commonly accepted theory holds that the ship broke up on the surface and spilled its cargo. The resulting loss of buoyancy led to the ship sinking quickly.

The general area of the wreck is known as The Shipwreck Coast and is home to the remains of some 400 ships. The majority of these wrecks are from the second half of the 19th century when shipping was notoriously dangerous.

Ships of that era lacked two-way radios and electronic navigation equipment that is common nowadays. Severe storms weren't the only factor in the danger. The area was also subject to dense fog and smoke from the area's forest fires often obscured vision.

The loss of the Fitzgerald was the first major incident on the Great Lakes since the 604-foot ore carrier Daniel J. Morrell sank in the waters of northern Lake Huron in November 1966. One survivor of the crew of 29 was rescued.

The Edmund Fitzgerald's legacy lives on. Rules were adopted soon after the tragedy aimed at making shipping safer including requiring the use of depth finders and the presence onboard of survival suits.

Gordon Lightfoot wrote his song about the tragedy while reading a newspaper on an airplane. "Summertime Dream," the album on which "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is included, was released in June 1976. The song reached No. 2 on American sales charts while the album topped out at No. 12.

An annual memorial honoring the Fitzgerald crew was held at the Mariners Church in Detroit until 2005. Subsequent memorials at the church honor all those lost on the Great Lakes.

The loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald remains the single deadliest incident on Lake Superior. The Fitzgerald is the largest ship lost on any of the Great Lakes.

Siemers is the Pioneer's circulation director. Email him at tsiemers@bemidjipioneer.com

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