November 10, 1975: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

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Forty-four years ago today the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank on November 10, 1975.  Launched in 1958, she was then the largest ship on the Great Lakes, and she remains the largest ship to have sunk on the Lakes.  For 17 years she transported taconite iron ore from Duluth to various ports on the Great Lakes.

The Fitzgerald left Superior on November 9, 1975 bound for a steel mill near Detroit.  She and a companion ship SS Arthur Anderson were caught the next day on Lake Superior in a very severe storm with near hurricane.  The Fitzgerald suddenly sank in 530 feet of water at 7:10 PM, 15 miles from the safety of Whitefish Bay.  All 29 members of the crew perished, none of their bodies ever recovered.

The reason for the sinking remains unclear, although I lean towards the theory that some of the cargo hatches were not securely fastened, and that water leaking into the holds imperceptibly led to the sinking once the tipping point was reached.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was written by Gordon Lightfoot after he read a story about the sinking.

The day after the sinking the Mariner’s Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times, a tradition kept until 2006 when the memorial was broadened to remember all lives lost on the Great Lakes.

The crew who perished on the Fitzgerald:

Captain Ernest M. McSorley Michael E. Armagost Fred J. Beetcher Thomas D. Bentsen
Edward F. Bindon Thomas D. Borgeson Oliver J. Champeau Nolan S. Church
Ransom E. Cundy Thomas E. Edwards Russell G. Haskell George J. Holl
Bruce L. Hudson Allen G. Kalmon Gorden Maclellan Joseph Mazes
John H. McCarthy Eugene O’Brien Karl A. Peckol John J. Poviach
James A. Pratt Robert C. Rafferty Paul M. Rippa John D. Simmons
William J. Spengler Mark A. Thomas Ralph G. Walton David E. Weiss
Blaine H. Wilhelm

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  1. The leaking hatchcovers theory has been disproven by a National Geographic study…see “Dive Detectives” edition.
    Overloaded, leaking from below due to a stress fracture, and riding forward into the base of a giant wave breaking the ship in two and heading straight to the bottom, the study proves…

  2. I think the hatch cover leaks probably contributed, but wouldn’t have been otherwise fatal. The sad fact is that the Fitz was designed to have a certain maximum load and the owners successfully petitioned to have the load capacity raised early on in her life. Carrying too heavy a load for too long wore the boat out. One crewman who transferred off the ship before she sank said she was always a “wet boat” and they were constantly pumping water out of her tunnels. Another crewman who worked with Captain McSorley on another ship said that McSorley once remarked that he thought the Fitz was too worn out.

    I also think there’s a non-trivial chance she hit a shoal (Superior Shoal, not Six Fathom). That would explain the topside damage. A horrible tragedy all around, whatever the cause.

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