Thirty years after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in the icy waters of Lake Superior, its disappearance remains a mystery. There were no distress signals, no witnesses, no survivors and no bodies recovered.
On November 9, 1975, the Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, for Detroit with a cargo of 26,000 tons of iron ore pellets. Along the way, the 13,632-ton ore carrier met up with another boat, the Arthur M. Anderson, which was carrying iron ore pellets to Gary, Indiana. The two boats traveled together with the Fitzgerald in the lead.
The calm November weather soon turned bad, with conditions worsening throughout the night. The two boats sailed in a northeasterly direction. Although it was a longer route, it would be less dangerous and away from the worsening storm.
By late afternoon on November 10, hurricane-like rains, 75-mile-per-hour winds and 30-foot waves pounded the two boats. At about the same time, the Anderson saw the Fitzgerald near a hard, rocky, shallow area called Six Fathom Shoal. Captain Gerald McSorley of the Fitzgerald radioed Captain Jesse Copper of the Anderson that his boat was listing, but his pumps were working.
After the storm ripped away the Fitzgerald’s two radar antennas, Captain McSorley turned his radio direction finder to the beacon from the Whitefish Point Lighthouse. Suddenly, the radio beacon went dead. The Fitzgerald was completely blind in the storm.
At 7:10 P.M. the Anderson radioed the Fitzgerald, asking the question, “How are you making out with your problems?” Captain McSorley replied, “We’re holding our own.” Minutes later, the Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson’s radar screen.
In a matter of minutes, one of the largest boats on the Great Lakes slammed to the bottom of Lake Superior. It settled 530 feet beneath the lake’s surface, breaking in two with the bow upright and the stern upside down. The crew of 29 men never launched a lifeboat, put on a life vest or issued a distress call.
But all this was learned later. As soon as the Fitzgerald disappeared, the Anderson radioed the Coast Guard, who launched a search. Air and water rescue teams found flotsam, including a lifeboat, from the Fitzgerald. Four days after the boat disappeared, an airplane using special equipment located the boat’s remains on the bottom of Lake Superior. The following spring, the Coast Guard made 12 dives on the Fitzgerald and spent many hours filming the mangled wreckage.
The Coast Guard determined that the Fitzgerald sank because of “massive flooding of the cargo hold.” The flooding occurred because of “ineffective hatch closures.” As waves crashed over the deck, more and more water entered the hold through these open hatches. Finally, the “bow pitched down and dove into a wall of water and the vessels was unable to recover.” In a “matter of seconds,” the cargo rushed forward, the bow plowed into the bottom of the lake, and the boat broke in two.
Not everyone agreed.
Others suggested the Fitzgerald was struck by several large waves that pushed the bow toward the lake bottom. With the stern out of the water, the boat broke in two. Another theory claimed that the Fitzgerald had scraped the bottom of Six Fathom Shoal, leaving a hole in the hull where it began to take on water.
It is believed that the crew’s bodies are still trapped in the boat’s wreckage. According to Ruth Hudson, whose only son died on the Fitzgerald, most families are not interested in retrieving the bodies for burial. “That is their grave,” she says. “We want it recognized as their grave and want it left undisturbed.”
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