Decades later, bells still toll for crew of Edmund Fitzgerald

Nov. 9, 1975 started as a crisp, calm, sunny day along the U.S.-Canadian border. On that day Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the largest freighters on the Great Lakes, left Superior, Wis., to deliver iron ore pellets to Zug Island in Detroit. It carried a crew of 29 men. Luck was not with the ship or the crew. They would soon be lying at the bottom of Lake Superior.

Edmund Fitzgerald on the St. Mary’s River in 1975. Launched in 1958, the 729-foot ship was the largest on the Great Lakes until 1971. The ship went down with all hands on Nov. 10, 1975, and now rests on the bottom of Lake Superior at a depth of 530 feet.
   Image Credit: Bob Campbell

In 1958, when it was launched, the 13,632-ton, 729-foot-long ship was the largest carrier on the Great Lakes and remained so until 1971. In 1964 it became the first ship on the Great Lakes to carry more than one million tons of ore through the Soo Locks.

Shortly after leaving Superior on what would be its last voyage, Fitzgerald made contact with Arthur M. Anderson, bound on a similar route for Gary, Ind. The two freighter captains discussed a storm that had brewed the night before in the Plains and proceeded northward toward the Great Lakes. According to the National Weather Service, it appeared to be a “typical November storm.”

At 1900 the Weather Service issued a gale warning for Lake Superior. The Weather Service predicted east to northeasterly winds during the night, shifting to northwest to north by the next afternoon. At approximately 2240, the Weather Service revised its forecast for eastern Lake Superior to easterly winds becoming southeasterly the morning of Nov. 10. At about 0200 on the 10th, the Weather Service upgraded the gale warning to a storm warning.

Just about the time the storm warning was issued, the captains of Anderson and Edmund Fitzgerald discussed the threatening weather and decided to make a change from the traditional course. This new route would take them northward toward the coast of Canada and better protect the ships from the storm’s fury.

At 0300 the winds were reported as coming from the northeast at 42 knots. Edmund Fitzgerald and Anderson moved in tandem with Anderson following. They had radio contact, and Anderson’s radar tracked the position of Edmund Fitzgerald.

Around 0700 the storm passed over Marquette, Minn., and started across Lake Superior. That afternoon there was a critical gradient shift. The winds were back to northwest and were reported steady at 43 knots. Waves of up to 16 feet were also reported.

In the late afternoon the captain of Edmund Fitzgerald, Ernest M. McSorley, reported that he had a bad list, and that the freighter was taking heavy seas over the deck. At 1910, he delivered what was to be his final message: “We are holding our own.”

Theories about the sinking

Just what caused the sinking is a matter of dispute to this day. Three Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society expeditions to the wreck have revealed that it is likely she plunged into the water bow first. Evident damage to Edmund Fitzgerald indicates that a powerful and rapid catastrophic force drove it to the bottom. What caused the ship to take on water, lose buoyancy and dive to the bottom so quickly has never been determined with certainty.

Some suggest Fitzgerald had been taking on water as a result of earlier damage from the storm, causing the ship’s lowered bow to plunge into a large wave. It is certain that between the time of launch and sinking, Fitzgerald ‘s load line was raised considerably, making the freighter sit lower in the water and thereby increasing the quantity of water that would flood the deck during a rough storm.

On April 15, 1977, the U.S. Coast Guard released its official report. It concluded that “the most probable cause of the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was the loss of buoyancy and stability resulting from massive flooding of the cargo hold. The flooding of the cargo hold took place through ineffective hatch closures as boarding seas rolled along the spar deck.”

The National Transportation Safety Board unanimously voted on March 23, 1978 to reject the Coast Guard report supporting the theory of faulty hatches. The NTSB later revised its verdict and agreed by majority vote that the sinking was the result of taking on water through one or more hatch covers damaged by the pounding of heavy seas on the deck. A later study by the U.S. Maritime Administration found that the flooding of two adjacent forward cargo holds would sink a bulk carrier.

The Lake Carriers Association rejected those conclusions. It contended that the foundering was caused by flooding through the ship’s underside and from ballast tank damage resulting from bottoming on the Six Fathom Shoal between Caribou and Michipicoten Islands. The captain of Anderson, Jesse “J.C.” Cooper, believed that this explanation was at least partially correct. It was his contention that McSorley knew something catastrophic had happened to his ship, and that it was doomed after passing Six Fathom Shoal.

Dr. John Knox of the Driftmier Engineering Center at the University of Georgia has studied the sinking extensively. Based on the captain’s report of severe listing, he believes it is likely that Fitzgerald was damaged at Six Fathom Shoal, and that the problem may have been exacerbated by water leaking into the cargo holds. According to Knox, the increasing weight of the water combined with the original iron pellets eventually would have sent the crippled freighter headlong toward the bottom of the lake in a final, sudden dive. The crew would have been unable to recover. No time was available under that scenario to make a distress call or attempt lifesaving operations.

Other analysts have speculated that the tragedy was the result of three huge waves. This is a known Lake Superior phenomenon where two “partner” waves inundate a vessel, followed shortly by a monster water wall that swamps it.

Capt. Cooper of the Anderson reported that, just before 1900, two of the largest waves he had ever seen inundated his ship. The second one sent water over the bridge deck, 35 feet above the waterline. These “seas,” as Cooper referred to them, were racing toward the Fitzgerald. Minutes later it disappeared from radar.

According to proponents of this explanation, it is possible that a vicious water wall or third wave developed between the “seas” reported by Cooper, rode up between them and snapped or swamped the ship. This is known to researchers as the “Three Sisters” theory.

Human error is another possible cause, though the various versions in this category have few supporters. Some believe the crew did not fasten or adequately tighten the series of clamps that were used to hold down the hatches, thus leaving Fitzgerald vulnerable to a violent storm. Others blame the captain for not navigating the ship to safer waters.

It is possible that one large wave engulfed the ship, pushing it underwater. Fitzgerald could have hit bottom and broken in two. In support of this theory, it may be noted that the two portions of the ship, as they lie on the bottom of Lake Superior today, are very close together.

Finally, waves could have lifted both the bow and stern, leaving the heavy center without support. In this scenario, overload forced the center downward, breaking the ship in the

Expeditions to the wreck

Several expeditions have been mounted to the wreck. In May 1976, the U.S. Coast Guard found the ship. This expedition officially determined that the wreckage lying at the bottom of this part of Lake Superior actually was Edmund Fitzgerald. Official identification was made and memorialized by photographing the hull of the ship. The name could be clearly read deep below the surface of the lake.

On Sept. 24, 1980, the second major expedition to the wreck site commenced. The wreck was probed with the help of a two-man submarine. Explorers reported that there was some evidence that the ship broke in two on the surface and did not sink very quickly. Most don’t believe this and the preponderance of the evidence doesn’t support it. Catastrophic damage to the lifeboats and the fact that there was no attempt to use them leads investigators to support the idea of a quick dive to the bottom. Also, iron pellets are scattered on the bottom, suggesting that the vessel hit hard and broke into two pieces, spilling the cargo on the floor.

Under the organization of Michigan Sea Grant in late August 1989, the wreck was again probed, this time with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Organizations that participated included the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Geographic Society, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, the U.S. Army Corps and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The research vessel Grayling, of the Great Lakes Science Center in Cheboygen, Mich., was the primary ship supporting the expedition.

Haunting discoveries were made. Some glass was still intact on the ship, and a door on the pilothouse was open. Some speculated that this indicated at least one person tried to escape since the door was not “dogged.” The team also claimed some of the damage on the bow could not have been caused by the storm. It was far too extensive.

The MacInnis expedition of July 1994, called Great Lakes ’94, was a six-week exploration of more than just the wreck of Fitzgerald. Researchers on this dive concluded that it was almost impossible that the ship split apart on the surface. In addition, more extensive damage than previously reported was discovered, and taconite pellets were also found widely scattered over the lake floor.

In 1995, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society contributed to a project to retrieve the bell of the freighter from the bottom of the lake at a depth of 530 feet. The bell was subsequently restored and is currently displayed in the organization’s museum in Whitefish Point, Mich.

Memorial services

The day after the sinking of Edmund Fitzgerald, the Rev. Richard Ingalls of Mariners’ Church in Detroit sat quietly in prayer for the 29 men lost in the sinking. After praying, he rang the church bell 29 times, one for each crewman.

Every year in commemoration of the wreck, a ceremony is held at Mariners’ Church. At the end of the service, families, friends or dignitaries ring the bell at the front of the chapel as the name of each crew member is called. A 30th ring has been added to commemorate the loss of the many other sailors lost in the 6,000 shipwrecks of the Great Lakes.

A similar service is held at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. There, the restored bell of Fitzgerald is rung for each of the 29 men who went down with the ship 30 years ago. •

Grey Hall

Grey Hall is a freelance writer, former administrator and professor of educational leadership at East Carolina University.


By Professional Mariner Staff