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The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: The legend lives on 44 years later

PortandTerminal.com, November 10, 2019

“Does anyone know where the love of god goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
-Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976) 

DETROIT, MICHIGAN -If you are of a certain age in North America you probably already know the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald and its sinking on Lake Superior. Some of you will also know the song by Gordon Lightfoot ‘The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald’ that told the story of it. If you don’t, hit play up above and have a listen.

Today marks the 44th anniversary of that night on November 10, 1975, when 29 men lost their lives when the Fitz, caught in a vicious storm, sank 530 feet to the cold, dark bottom of Lake Superior. Not one body was ever found.

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The large cargo vessels that worked the Great Lakes are known as lakers, and the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was, at the time, the biggest one ever built.

Most lakers traversing the Great Lakes and the connecting waterways carry massive amounts of raw materials such as rock, salt, and grain. The Edmund Fitzgerald generally carried taconite, low-grade iron ore, from mines on the shores of Minnesota and transported the pellets to steel mills near Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.

It was constructed as a “maximum sized” bulk carrier and spanned 729 feet—the first laker to reach that length—sat 39 feet high with a width of 75 feet, and weighed more than 13,000 tons without cargo. 

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank in the southeastern part of Lake Superior, where the waves would be the biggest on a northwest wind

The Edmund Fitzgerald was caught that night in a very strong low-pressure system that moved out of Wisconsin and tracked over Lake Superior.  The center of the storm had a very low air pressure of 29.02″. This would be the same air pressure as a category one hurricane.

Lots of ships, especially ones as large as the Edmund Fitzgerald, easily survive storms like the one on November 10, 1975, don’t they?

The path of the Edmund Fitzgerald was under a gale watch before their voyage. So the nasty weather wasn’t a surprise. It was just a surprise at how severe the gale.

So what happened?

And it’s here where the mystery starts. Faulty hatches, rogue wave, ship structural problems are all possible answers.

The last communication from the Edmund Fitzgerald came at approximately 7:10 p.m. when a neighboring ship caught in the storm Arthur M. Anderson notified Edmund Fitzgerald of an upbound ship and asked how she was doing.

Captain McSorley of the Fitzgerald replied, “We are holding our own.” She sank minutes later. No distress signal was received, and ten minutes later, Arthur M. Anderson lost the ability either to reach Edmund Fitzgerald by radio or to detect her on radar.

On Sept. 1, 1995, Tysall and fellow diver Mike Zee, of Chicago, became the first and only people to ever scuba dive the Fitzgerald. The deep-water expedition landed the two men in the technical diving history books – and in hot water with some of the lost crewmembers’ families, who consider the wreck a gravesite.

I was on duty this night. Stationed at K.I. Sawyer AFB in the UP of Michigan. Crew member on a rescue helo. Never could have found any survivors in that storm but we sure tried hour after hour. Was a bad night. Still remember it after all this time.

George Stegner commenting on the attempted recovery of survivors

The original ships bell was recovered in 1995, and was replaced on the wreck with an exact replica of the bell engraved with each of the 29 victims’ names.

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