The Fateful Journey
by Sean Ley, Development Officer
The final voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald began November 9, 1975 at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock No.1, Superior, Wisconsin. Captain Ernest M. McSorley had loaded her with 26,116 long tons of taconite pellets, made of processed iron ore, heated and rolled into marble-size balls. Departing Superior about 2:30 pm, she was soon joined by the Arthur M. Anderson, which had departed Two Harbors, Minnesota under Captain Bernie Cooper. The two ships were in radio contact. The Fitzgerald being the faster took the lead, with the distance between the vessels ranging from 10 to 15 miles.
Aware of a building November storm entering the Great Lakes from the great plains, Captain McSorley and Captain Cooper agreed to take the northerly course across Lake Superior, where they would be protected by highlands on the Canadian shore. This took them between Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula. 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 issued at 7 pm on November 9, 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. In the early afternoon of November 10, the Fitzgerald had passed Michipicoten Island and was approaching Caribou Island. The Anderson was just approaching Michipicoten, about three miles off the West End Light.
Captain Cooper maintained that he watched the Edmund Fitzgerald pass far too close to Six Fathom Shoal to the north of Caribou Island. He could clearly see the ship and the beacon on Caribou on his radar set 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, visible 17 miles ahead on radar.
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.”
As the afternoon wore on, radio communications with the Fitzgerald concerned navigational information but no extraordinarily alarming reports were offered by Captain McSorley. At about 5:20 pm the crest of a wave smashed the Anderson’s starboard lifeboat, making it unusable. Captain Cooper reported winds from the NW x W (305 ) at a steady 58 knots with gusts to 70 knots, and seas of 18 to 25 feet.
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.”
Morgan Clark, first mate of the Anderson, kept watching the Fitzgerald on the radar set to calculate her distance from some other vessels near Whitefish Point. He kept losing sight of the Fitzgerald on the radar from sea return, meaning that seas were so high they interfered with the radar reflection. First mate Clark spoke to the Fitzgerald one last time, about 7:10 pm:
“Fitzgerald, this is the Anderson. Have you checked down?”
“Yes, we have.”
“Fitzgerald, we are about 10 miles behind you, and gaining about 1 1/2 miles per hour. Fitzgerald, there is a target 19 miles ahead of us. So the target would be 9 miles on ahead of you.”
“Well,” answered Captain McSorley, “Am I going to clear?”
“Yes, he is going to pass to the west of you.”
“By the way, Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problems?” asked Clark.
“We are holding our own.”
“Okay, fine, I’ll be talking to you later.” Clark signed off.
The radar signal, or “pip” of the Fitzgerald kept getting obscured by sea return. And around 7:15 pm, the pip was lost again, but this time, did not reappear. Clark called the Fitzgerald again at about 7:22 pm. There was no answer.
Captain Cooper contacted the other ships in the area by radio asking if anyone had seen or heard from the Fitzgerald. The weather had cleared dramatically. His written report states:
“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.”
With mounting apprehension, Captain Cooper called the Coast Guard once again, about 8:00 pm, and firmly expressed his concern for the welfare of the Fitzgerald. The Coast Guard then initiated its search for the missing ship. By that time the Anderson had reached the safety of Whitefish Bay to the relief of all aboard. But the Coast Guard called Captain Cooper back at 9:00 pm:
“Anderson, this is Group Soo. What is your present position?”
“We’re down here, about two miles off Parisienne Island right now…the wind is northwest forty to forty-five miles here in the bay.”
“Is it calming down at all, do you think?”
“In the bay it is, but I heard a couple of the salties talking up there, and they wish they hadn’t gone out.”
“Do you think there is any possibility and you could…ah…come about and go back there and do any searching?”
“Ah…God, I don’t know…ah…that…that sea out there is tremendously large. Ah…if you want me to, I can, but I’m not going to be making any time; I’ll be lucky to make two or three miles an hour going back out that way.”
“Well, you’ll have to make a decision as to whether you will be hazarding your vessel or not, but you’re probably one of the only vessels right now that can get to the scene. We’re going to try to contact those saltwater vessels and see if they can’t possibly come about and possibly come back also…things look pretty bad right now; it looks like she may have split apart at the seams like the Morrell did a few years back.”
“Well, that’s what I been thinking. But we were talking to him about seven and he said that everything was going fine. He said that he was going along like an old shoe; no problems at all.”
“Well, again, do you think you could come about and go back and have a look in the area?”
“Well, I’ll go back and take a look, but God, I’m afraid I’m going to take a hell of a beating out there… I’ll turn around and give ‘er a whirl, but God, I don’t know. I’ll give it a try.”
“That would be good.”
“Do you realize what the conditions are out there?”
No reply from the Coast Guard. Captain Cooper tries again.
“Affirmative. From what your reports are I can appreciate the conditions. Again, though, I have to leave that decision up to you as to whether it would be hazarding your vessel or not. If you think you can safely go back up to the area, I would request that you do so. But I have to leave the decision up to you.”
“I’ll give it a try, but that’s all I can do.”
The Anderson turned out to be the primary vessel in the search, taking the lead. With the ship pounding and rolling badly, the crew of the Anderson discovered the Fitzgerald’s two lifeboats and other debris but no sign of survivors. Only one other vessel, the William Clay Ford, was able to leave the safety of Whitefish Bay to join in the search at the time. The Coast Guard launched a fixed-wing HU-16 aircraft at 10 pm and dispatched two cutters, the Naugatuck and the Woodrush. The Naugatuck arrived at 12:45 pm on November 11, and the Woodrush arrived on November 14, having journeyed all the way from Duluth, Minnesota.
The Coast Guard conducted an extensive and thorough search. On November 14, a U.S. Navy plane equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector located a strong contact 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point. During the following three days, the Coast Guard cutter Woodrush, using a sidescan sonar, located two large pieces of wreckage in the same area. Another sonar survey was conducted November 22-25.
Finding the Fitzgerald
The following May, 1976, Woodrush was again on the scene to conduct a third sidescan sonar survey. Contacts were strong enough to bring in the U.S. Navy’s CURV III controlled underwater recovery vehicle, operating from Woodrush.
The CURV III unit took 43,000 feet of video tape and 900 photographs of the wreck. On May 20, 1976, the words “Edmund Fitzgerald” were clearly seen on the stern, upside down, 535 feet below the surface of the lake.
On April 15, 1977 the U.S. Coast Guard released its official report of “Subject: S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, official number 277437, sinking in Lake Superior on 10 November 1975 with loss of life.” While the Coast Guard said the cause of the sinking could not be conclusively determined, it maintained 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.”
However, the Lake Carrier’s Association vigorously disagreed with the Coast Guard’s suggestion that the lack of attention to properly closing the hatch covers by the crew was responsible for the disaster. They issued a letter to the National Transportation Safety Board in September, 1977. The Lake Carrier’s Association was inclined to accept that Fitzgerald passed over the Six Fathom Shoal Area as reported by Captain Cooper.
Later, in a videotaped conversation with GLSHS, Captain Cooper said that he always believed McSorley knew something serious had happened to Fitzgerald as the ship passed over Caribou Shoal. Cooper believes that from that point on, McSorley knew he was sinking.
Conflicting theories about the cause of the tragedy remain active today. GLSHS’ three expeditions to the wreck revealed that it is likely she “submarined” bow first into an enormous sea, as damage forward is indicative of a powerful, quick force to the superstructure. But what caused the ship to take on water, enough to lose buoyancy and dive to the bottom so quickly, without a single cry for help, cannot be determined.
Twenty-nine men were lost when the Fitzgerald went down. There is absolutely no conclusive evidence to determine the cause of the sinking. The bell of the ship is now on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a memorial to her lost crew.
For books, videos, and memorabilia about the Fitzgerald, her loss, and her legacy, visit the Shipwreck Coast Museum Store online now.