Edmund Fitzgerald | 40 years under Lake Superior

On Nov. 10, 1975, the gales of November came early on Lake Superior.

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the Great Lakes ore carrier named after the then-president of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, began taking on water as 50-knot winds blew across the lake.

Mid-afternoon, the ship began to list.

The last radio communication took place at 7:10 p.m.

Jessie B. Cooper, the captain of the nearby cargo ship the SS Arthur M. Anderson, asked how the Fitzgerald was weathering the storm and Captain Ernest M. McSorley replied, "We are holding our own."

It is believed that the Fitzgerald then sank suddenly at about 7:15 p.m. without sending out any distress signals.

The Fitzgerald crew of 29 consisted of the captain, the first, second and third mates, five engineers, three oilers, a cook, a wiper, two maintenance men, three watchmen, three deckhands, three wheelsmen, two porters, a cadet and a steward.

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Most of the crew was from Ohio and Wisconsin, from the youngest – a 20-year-old watchman from Ashtabula, a 21-year-old deckhand from Richmond Heights and a 22-year-old deckhand from North Olmsted – to McSorley, 63, of Toledo.

McSorley planned on retiring after this trip. Only the bell from the Fitzgerald was recovered.

Fate of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The 729-foot long Fitzgerald – nicknamed the Mighty Fitz or Big Fitz -- was built at the Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge, Michigan and launched June 8, 1958, according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.

It was the largest ore carrier on the Great Lakes when it entered service.

Not only was the Arthur M. Anderson, built by American Ship Building in Lorain in 1952, famous for being the last ship in contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald before it sank, it was also the first ship on the scene to search for survivors.

After conducting an initial futile search of the area for survivors, the Anderson sought safe harbor in Whitefish Bay in the early hours of Nov. 11, according to records.

The U.S. Coast Guard then requested the Anderson to reverse course and assist in conducting another search for the Fitzgerald, according to USCG records. They also asked U.S. vessels William Clay Ford, Armco, Roger Blough, Reserve, Wilfred Sykes and William R. Roesch; Canadian vessels Hilda Marjanne, Frontenac, John O. McKeller, Murray Bay and fishing tug James D.

Listen to the Nov. 10 radio chatter between the Anderson and the Coast Guard

No survivors were found nor any bodies recovered.

The Anderson sighted one piece of a lifeboat at 8:07 on Nov. 11 about 9 miles east of where the Fitzgerald disappeared and an hour later sighted the 2nd damaged lifeboat about 4 miles south of the first one.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was later found in Canadian waters 530 feet below the surface of Lake Superior. The ship had broken into two pieces.

The SS Arthur M. Anderson is still sailing the Great Lakes. In fact, on Feb. 16, it became stuck and stranded in several feet of ice in Lake Erie near Conneaut Harbor. It was freed Feb. 21 with the help of the CCGS Griffon, according to USCG records.

At the request of family members surviving her crew, the Fitzgerald's 200 lb. bronze bell was recovered by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society on July 4, 1995. This expedition was conducted jointly with the National Geographic Society, Canadian Navy, Sony Corporation, and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.

The bell is on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a memorial to her lost crew.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society was founded in 1978 by a group of divers, teachers, and educators to commence exploration of historic shipwrecks in eastern Lake Superior, near Whitefish Point in Michigan's scenic Upper Peninsula.

Today, this non-profit organization operates two museum sites on historic properties: The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, Whitefish Point Light Station, Whitefish Point; and the U.S. Weather Bureau Building, Soo Locks Park, Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan.

READ MORE | 40 years ago, the 'Witch of November' sank the Edmund Fitzgerald

Superior, they said, never gives up her dead

Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot made it the subject of his 1976 song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" after reading an article, "The Cruelest Month," printed in Newsweek's Nov. 24, 1975 issue.

(MOBILE USERS: click here to watch Gordon Lightfoot - The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald)

If anything good could come out of this tragedy, know that the sinking led to changes in Great Lakes shipping regulations and practices that included mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard, and more frequent inspection of vessels, according to the USCG.

One line from that Lightfoot song reads "Superior, they said, never gives up her dead" and the bodies of the 29 were never recovered.

They are:

Michael E. Armagost, 37, Third Mate from Iron River, Wisconsin

Fred J. Beetcher, 56, Porter from Superior, Wisconsin

Thomas D. Bentsen, 23, Oiler from St. Joseph, Michigan

Edward F. Bindon, 47, First Asst. Engineer from Fairport Harbor, Ohio

Thomas D. Borgeson, 41, Maintenance Man fromDuluth, Minnesota

Oliver J. Champeau, 41, Third Asst. Engineer from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

Nolan S. Church, 55, Porter from Silver Bay, Minnesota

Ransom E. Cundy, 53, Watchman from Superior, Wisconsin

Thomas E. Edwards, 50, Second Asst. Engineer from Oregon, Ohio

Russell G. Haskell, 40, Second Asst. Engineer from Millbury, Ohio

George J. Holl, 60, Chief Engineer from Cabot, Pennsylvania

Bruce L. Hudson, 22, Deck Hand from North Olmsted, Ohio

Allen G. Kalmon, 43, Second Cook from Washburn, Wisconsin

Gordon F. MacLellan, 30, Wiper from Clearwater, Florida

Joseph W. Mazes, 59, Special Maintenance Man from Ashland, Wisconsin

John H. McCarthy, 62, First Mate from Bay Village, Ohio

Ernest M. McSorley, 63, Captain from Toledo, Ohio

Eugene W. O'Brien, 50, Wheelsman from Toledo, Ohio

Karl A. Peckol, 20, Watchman from Ashtabula, Ohio

John J. Poviach, 59, Wheelsman from Bradenton, Florida

James A. Pratt, 44, Second Mate from Lakewood, Ohio

Robert C. Rafferty, 62, Steward from Toledo, Ohio

Paul M. Riippa, 22, Deck Hand from Ashtabula, Ohio

John D. Simmons, 63, Wheelsman from Ashland, Wisconsin

William J. Spengler, 59, Watchman from Toledo, Ohio

Mark A. Thomas, 21, Deck Hand from Richmond Heights, Ohio

Ralph G. Walton, 58, Oiler from Fremont, Ohio

David E. Weiss, 22, Cadet from Agoura, California

Blaine H. Wilhelm, 52, Oiler from Moquah, Wisconsin


Investigation into what may have gone wrong

Here is what the National Transportation Safety Board has posted about the incident. Note that the proceedings took place in Cleveland.

"This casualty was investigated by a U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation which convened at Cleveland, Ohio, on November 18, 1975. A representative of the National Transportation Safety Board observed part of the proceedings. The Safety Board has considered all facts pertinent to the Safety Board's statutory responsibility to determine the cause or probable cause of the casualty and to make recommendations. The Safety Board's recommendations are made independently of any recommendations proposed by the Coast Guard. To assure public knowledge of all Safety Board recommendations, all such recommendations are published in the Federal Register. If the Coast Guard does not accept some of these Safety Board recommendations, the Coast Guard is required to set forth in detail the reasons for such refusal. This is one of the means by which the Safety Board exercises its responsibility of assessing the safety, operating, and regulatory practices of the U.S. Coast Guard."

"About 1915 EST on November 10, 1975, the Great Lakes bulk cargo vessel SS EDMUND FITZGERALD, fully loaded with a cargo of taconite pellets, sank in eastern Lake Superior in position 46 59.91 N, 85 06.61 W, approximately 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay, MI. The ship was traveling from Superior, WI, to Detroit, MI, and had been proceeding at a reduced 3 speed in a severe storm. All the vessel's 29 officers and crewmembers are missing and presumed dead. No distress call was heard by vessels or shore stations. The Safety Board considered many factors during the investigation including stability, hull strength, operating practices, adequacy of weathertight closures, hatch cover strength, possible grounding, vessel design, loading practices, and weather forecasting."

"The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the sudden massive flooding of the cargo hold due to the collapse of one or more hatch covers. Before the hatch covers collapsed, flooding into the ballast tanks and tunnel through topside damage and flooding into the cargo hold through non-weathertight hatch covers caused a reduction of freeboard and a list. The hydrostatic and hydrodynamic forces imposed on the hatch covers by heavy boarding seas at this reduced freeboard and with the list caused the hatch covers to collapse. Contributing to the accident was the lack of transverse watertight bulkheads in the cargo hold and the reduction of freeboard authorized by the 1969, 1971, and 1973 amendments to the Great Lakes Load Line Regulations."

Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes in surface area and volume.

It has the capacity to contain the water volume of the four other lakes plus three additional Lake Eries. Given its immense size, it is capable of sustaining waves in excess of 33 feet, about the height of a four-story home.


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