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November 10, 1975. Do you remember?
“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.”
Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” 1976
I remember it well. I can still “see” Harry Reasoner sitting at his desk on the evening news talking about the apparent loss of the ship “Edmund Fitzgerald” and crew of 29. For some reason, it struck me – viscerally. Perhaps it was because we were so used to seeing great ships going under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (although they were not nearly as large as the Great Lakes freighters). I remember following the story at the time. I never forgot the sadness I felt. Then, too, there’s that song…it’s one of those that sticks in your head and takes forever to get rid of.
The last voyage of the Great Lakes Freighter “Edmund Fitzgerald,” captained by Ernest M. McSorley, started in Superior, Wisconsin on November 9, 1975. The “Fitz” was loaded with over 26,000 tons of iron ore pellets. The ship was scheduled to transport the cargo to Zug Island on the Detroit River. She left port with the Arthur M Anderson whose captain was Bernie Cooper. It was determined that the Edmund Fitzgerald would take the lead as she was the faster vessel.
Both captains were acutely aware of a building November storm entering the Great Lakes. Captain McSorley and Captain Cooper agreed to take the northerly course across Lake Superior, where they would be protected by the Canadian shore. They would later make a turn to the southeast to eventually reach the shelter of Whitefish Point.
Weather conditions continued to deteriorate. Gale warnings had been upgraded to storm warnings early in the morning of November 10. While conditions were bad, with winds gusting to 50 knots and seas 12 to 16 feet, both Captains had often piloted their vessels in similar conditions.
As the Fitzgerald approached Caribou Island, it appeared to Captain Cooper on the Anderson that the Fitz had passed far too close to Six Fathom Shoal. He could clearly see the ship and the beacon on Caribou on his radar and could measure the distance between them. He and his officers watched the Fitzgerald pass right over the dangerous area of shallow water. By this time, snow and rising spray had obscured the Fitzgerald from sight
According to transcripts and quoting from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum website, “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.’”
There were no more extraordinarily alarming reports from Captain McSorley that afternoon. However, at around 5 p.m., a wave smashed into the Anderson smashing its starboard lifeboat. Winds were reported to be almost 60 knots steady, with gusts to 70 knots. Seas were running 18 to 25 feet.
Again, from the GLSM website, “According to Captain Cooper, about 6:55 pm, he and the men in the Anderson’s pilothouse felt a “bump”, felt the ship lurch, and then turned to see a monstrous wave engulfing their entire vessel from astern. The wave worked its way along the deck, crashing on the back of the pilothouse, driving the bow of the Anderson down into the sea.
“Then the Anderson just raised up and shook herself off of all that water – barrooff – just like a big dog. Another wave just like the first one or bigger hit us again. I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald, and I think those were the two that sent him under.’”
The first mate of the Anderson spoke to the Fitzgerald one last time, about 7:10 pm.
Fitzgerald: “We are holding our own.”
“Okay, fine, I’ll be talking to you later.” The mate signed off.
The radar signal, or “pip” of the Fitzgerald kept getting obscured by “sea return,” meaning that seas were so high they interfered with the radar reflection. Around 7:15 pm, the pip was lost again, but this time, did not reappear. The Anderson’s First Mate called the Fitzgerald again at about 7:22 pm. There was no answer.
Quoting Captain Cooper, “At this time I became very concerned about the Fitzgerald – couldn’t see his lights when we should have. I then called the William Clay Ford to ask him if my phone was putting out a good signal and also if perhaps the Fitzgerald had rounded the point and was in shelter, after a negative report I called the Soo Coast Guard because I was sure something had happened to the Fitzgerald. The Coast Guard were at this time trying to locate a 16-foot boat that was overdue.”
Captain Cooper kept asking the few other ships in the area if they had seen or heard anything from the Fitzgerald. As there had been no word, he persisted with the Coast Guard. Captain Cooper and his crew had just managed to pilot the Anderson to safety in Whitefish Bay. They were all breathing a huge sigh of relief when the Coast Guard made a huge request of them.
There were no Coast Guard ships in the immediate area. Could the Anderson go back out into the storm to look for the Fitzgerald? I can’t imagine the anxiety. Here they had just reached safety after being hammered by a huge storm including two huge, rogue waves (called “two sisters” in maritime lingo), but the seaman’s unwritten code is that you go to try to help fellow seamen.
The Anderson became the lead boat in the search. The Anderson was again severely pounded by the storm and was rolling badly, but they were able to locate the Fitzgerald’s two lifeboats (empty) and other debris, but no sign of survivors. The William Clay Ford also left the safety of Whitefish Bay to help. These two were later joined by two Coast Guard cutters and a fixed-wing aircraft.
The Coast Guard continued the search. On November 14, a specially-outfitted, U.S. Navy plane got a strong signal 17 miles off Whitefish Point. In the next few days, the Coast Guard cutters used different technologies (including side-scan radar) to check that area. One of them located two large pieces of wreckage on the bottom in the same area. A similar search took place in late November. However, winter was closing in. There would be no chance to continue until spring. As large as the Great Lakes are, Mother Nature and winter are stronger. The Lakes become impassible with ice.
In May of 1976, they returned to try to determine if these sonar responses were, indeed, the wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Navy submersibles took thousands of feet of video and hundreds of still photos. On May 20, 1976, all question as to the final resting place of the “Fitz” was removed as photos were examined and the name “Edmund Fitzgerald” was clearly seen on the stern, upside down, 535 feet below the surface of the lake.
In November of 1994, family members of the crew brought their concerns to The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS). They were worried that technology was getting to the point where more and more divers were able to dive the wrecksite of the Fitzgerald. They, naturally, considered this sacred ground as it is the final resting place of their loved ones. The families were still trying to find some form of “closure.”
After discussions with the families, a long list of U.S. and Canadian government agencies, and the owners of the wreck, it was determined that a single, significant artifact – the ship’s bell – could be removed from roof of the pilothouse and brought to shore. A replacement bell, inscribed with the names of the 29 sailors who lost their lives on the Fitzgerald, would be returned to the pilothouse.
The bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald broke water at 1:25 pm, July 4, 1995 as family members watched. A wreath was placed on the water following the recovery. Family members there that day finally had the opportunity to express their grief, say goodbye and for some, bring closure after 20 years. The replacement bell would be returned to the wreck.
The Fitzgerald’s bell was stabilized and then delivered to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. From there, the museum continued restoring the bell for use as the centerpiece of a memorial to the men who died in the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. You can see it, today, as the centerpiece of their museum along with a photo of Captain McSorley and additional information about and pictures of the Fitzgerald.
The Edmund Fitzgerald will forever, legally, remain off-limits to divers as it is the final resting place for the 29 souls lost that fateful night.
“Life” moments of the Edmund Fitzgerald
8/7/1957: Keel laid
6/8/1958: Hull #301 is christened “Edmund Fitzgerald” after the CEO of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company
9/24/1958: The Fitzgerald makes her maiden voyage
1972: Captain Ernest McSorley takes command of the Edmund Fitzgerald
11/10/1975: Last day of the great ship
5/20/1976: More than 40,000 feet of video tape from expeditions to the purported wreck by submersibles is examined. The words “Edmund Fitzgerald” were clearly seen on the stern, upside down, 535 feet below the surface of the lake
7/4/1995: The bell of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald is raised, restored, and replaced on the ship by a new bell with the names of the twenty nine men lost. This is the last time the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald will ever again be legally dived upon
To this day, the true reason for the sinking goes unsolved. Did the Fitzgerald essentially scuttle herself on the shoals in the storm? Were the hatches properly fastened? Did the two giant, rogue waves (the “two sisters”) that hit the Anderson continue to build and swamp an already listing Fitzgerald driving her into the bottom? We’ll never know. There were no survivors to tell the tale.
“Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searches all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.”
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