Hey, everyone. Time for another Mystery Monday. The events leading to today’s post began forty-five years ago today. While the whereabouts of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald isn’t a mystery, what caused the sinking of the freighter is. Interested? Read on.
In 1976, fresh out of high school, I had a part-time job that required me to arrive at work in the early morning. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do for a teenager. You might expect I listened to music on my morning drive. Back then, you could almost set your clock by songs. Every day at the nearly same time, I heard Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The haunting ballad quickly became one of my favorites. I don’t recall when I first learned Lightfoot based his song on an actual event, but I soon became fascinated with the story of the ship.
Here’s what we know. On November 9, 1975, The Fitzgerald, under the command of veteran sailor Ernest M. McSorley, left Superior, Wisconsin, with a cargo of 26,000 tons of iron ore. Its destination was a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan. She joined another freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson bound for Gary, Indiana with Captain Jesse B. (Bernie) Cooper at the helm.
The National Weather Service (NWS) predicted a storm would pass to the south. But by seven that evening, they revived the forecast and issued gale warnings for all of Lake Superior. With two experienced captains at the helm, the Fitzgerald and the Anderson altered their course northward, seeking shelter along the Ontario shore.
At 1:00 a.m. on November 10, the ships encountered a winter storm. The Fitzgerald reported fifty-two knot (sixty mph) winds. The NWS upgraded its warnings from gale to storm, forecasting winds of 35–50 knots (40–58 mph).
Shortly after 3:30 p.m., Captain McSorley radioed the Anderson to report the Edmund Fitzgerald was taking on water, had lost two vent covers, and a fence railing. Around 4:10, he radioed again to report a radar failure, stated the ship had a “bad list,” and he was taking heavy seas over the deck.
By late afternoon, sustained winds of over fifty knots were recorded across eastern Lake Superior. The Anderson logged sustained winds as high as fifty-eight knots and reported some waves as high as thirty-five feet.
The last communication with the Fitzgerald was approximately 7:10 p.m. when Captain Cooper of the Anderson asked how she was doing.
McSorley reported, “We are holding our own.” Minutes later, the ship sank. There was no distress signal sent. The Anderson lost radio contact and the crew could not see the Fitzgerald on radar.
Searchers recovered debris, including lifeboats and rafts, but didn’t find any trace of the twenty-nine-man crew.
In May 1976, the U.S. Navy conducted a dive on the wreck site using an unmanned submersible, and discovered the ship lying 530 feet below the surface. It had broken into two parts. In between the two broken sections was a large mass of taconite pellets and scattered wreckage, including hatch covers and hull plating.
In 1980, during a Lake Superior research dive expedition, marine explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau, sent two divers from the RV Calypso in the first manned submersible dive to Edmund Fitzgerald. The dive team drew no final conclusions, they speculated the ship had broken up on the surface.
A third dive occurred in 1989, and a fourth in 1994. Family members of the Fitzgerald’s crew requested a halt to all dives to the wreck, stating it was the burial place for the twenty-nine men. However, they asked for one more dive—to recover the ship’s bell.
Divers recovered the bell in 1995 and placed another bell containing the names of the twenty-nine men on the ship.
There are several theories regarding what may have caused the wreck.
- Faulty hatch covers. (Research and expeditions have disproved this initial theory.)
- Bottoming out. This could have happened in an area called Six Fathom Shoal. Captain Cooper supported this theory.
- A wave pushed the front of the ship underwater. The ship then hit ground. This could explain why the two sections of the ship are close to one another.
- Previous structural damage.
- Huge waves swamped the ship, causing it to sink. Many people call these waves “The Three Sisters.”
- A wave snapped the ship in half before in sank.
There have been over six thousand wrecks on the Great Lakes, but none as famous as that of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It’s said interest in this shipwreck is second only to the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
What do you think? Waves, structural damage, bottoming out, hatch covers? Share your thoughts below, then enjoy the Gordon Lightfoot tune.