November 10, 1975: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald


It has been a minute since I've written about a disaster on here instead of a murder or disappearance! But, I do love a good shipwreck, so here is the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was a Great Lakes freighter that sank in a storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. The entire crew of 29 people perished in the disaster. The ship carried taconite iron ore from Duluth, Minnesota to Detroit, Toledo and other Great Lakes ports.

Though the exact cause of the sinking has never been determined, the disaster lead to changes in shipping regulations, including mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard, and more frequent inspections of vessels.


At 2:15 pm on November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin for Zug Island near Detroit, Michigan. It was carrying 26,116 long tons of taconite ore pellets moving 16.3 miles per hour. The weather forecast was pretty typical for November, and though a storm was approaching, it was predicted it would pass north of their route and be gone by 7 am the following morning.

They were traveling a similar route to the SS Wilfred Sykes who's captain, Captain Dudley J. Paquette, chose a route from the outset that would offer more protection if the storm were to be worse than expected. The Edmund Fitzgerald selected to take the regular down-bound route.

At 7 pm, the National Weather Service updated their forecast, now projecting the storm would cover most of the lake, and not just the area north of their path. With this in mind, Edmund Fitzgerald altered course northward to seek shelter along the shore. It was there that, at 1am, they were reporting 60mph winds and 10ft high waves. They reduced the ship's speed due to the rough conditions.

At 2 am, the NWS further upgraded its warnings to a much bigger storm than originally predicted. The Edmund Fitzgerald had been traveling pretty close to the Arthur M. Anderson, but the Fitzgerald began to pull ahead early that morning. Both ships experienced intense, shifting winds and snow that reduced visibility. At this point, the Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald, which had made its way about 16 miles ahead.

Things were looking manageable for the next 12 hours, with nothing of note. But then, at around 3:30 pm, the Fitzgerald's captain, Captain McSorley, radioed the Anderson to report that they were taking on water and had lost vent covers and a fence railing, and had developed a little bit of a tilt. McSorley said he would slow the ship down so the Anderson could catch up and help out. Around this time, the US Coast Guard (USCG) warned all ships that ports were being closed, and they should seek safety as soon as they could.

About 40 minutes later, McSorley, now getting a little bit worried, called the Anderson again. Because they were so far apart, a radar wasn't able to be reached. The Fitzgerald slowed even further, sailing essentially blind in the conditions, so the Anderson could get within a 10 mile radius so the radar would pick up again. The Anderson was able to direct the Fitzgerald toward the safety of Whitefish Bay. Unfortunately, the USCG reported that the navigational beacon there were not operational. McSorley began to flag down ships in the area to get some navigational aid.

Captain Cedric Woodard of the Avafors connected with him, but only had more bad news. He testified that McSorley told him, "I have a bad list. I have lost both radars, and am taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I have ever been in."

The Fitzgerald's odds were getting worse. The winds continued at nearly 58mph as the boat continued to break down in key places. The waves were approaching up to 25 feet. The Anderson, with most of its ship still in tact, was taking a beating with nearly 86mph gusts of winds and rogue 35-ft waves. The Fitzgerald was getting it as well, but the ship had already started to break down.

At approximately 7:10 pm, the Arthur M. Anderson checked in on the Edmund Fitzgerald to ask how she was doing. The captain responded, "we are holding our own." The ship would sink just minutes later. No distress signal was ever received, and the Anderson lost the ability to reach the ship in any way, shape, or form within 10 minutes of their last communication.

Captain Cooper of the Anderson called the USCG at 7:39 to report what he assumed to be a very bad situation, but he was told to call through a different channel, as this one was for emergencies only. Cooper continued trying to get ahold of someone who could help until nearly 9 pm when someone finally declared the ship as missing. Officer Philip Branch later testified about the delay, "I considered it serious, but at the time it was not urgent."

Without appropriate search and rescue boats to respond to the disaster, the Anderson was asked to turn around and search for survivors. The USCG asked all vessels in the area to assist, as well. A variety of different ships pitched into the search. A Canadian Coast Guard aircraft joined. The search lasted for 3 days.

During the search, debris, lifeboats, and rafts were found, but none of the crew. There were 29 people aboard the ship, including the captain, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd mates, 5 engineers, 3 oilers, 1 cook, a wiper, 2 maintenance men, 3 watchmen, 3 deckhands, 3 wheelsmen, 2 porters, 1 cadet and 1 steward. Most were from Ohio or Wisconsin. The youngest was a 20-year-old watchman, and the oldest was Captain McSorley who was 63 and planning his retirement.


There were a lot of boats that were being beaten with the same weather conditions the Fitzgerald was experiencing... so why did she sink?

A computer simulation was run in 2005 to emulate the wave conditions. Though the conditions were terrible everywhere, it was estimated that there were hurricane force winds, consistently 70mph with up to 86mph gusts at the time and place where the Fitzgerald sank. The terrible conditions may have just hit that specific location worse than anywhere else.

There were also rogue waves to consider. There was a report of 3 "rogue waves" reported in the area of the boat when she sank. These waves were all 1/3rd larger than the standard waves, coming in a sequence of three. Captain Cooper said that they were hit by 2 30-35 foot waves, one burying the cabins and damaging a lifeboat. The second wave came over the bridge deck. The boat survived, but the waves were traveling in the direction of the fated boat, and would have struck around the time she sank. Because the Fitzgerald was already "listing" and was going far slower than normal, it allowed water to remain on the deck for larger than usual.

A wave-generating tank was created to imitate the possibility of the rogue wave, and the simulation indicated that such a wave series could have completely submerged the ship.

There are other theories, including a cargo-hold hatch issue that lead to flooding, "shoaling", or just a structural failure of the ship that led to the fatal sink.

On top of the actual causes, other factors include the poor weather forecasting that led the boat to "precisely the wrong place at the absolute worse time," inaccurate navigational charts, lack of watertight bulkheads, lack of instrumentation, increased load, poor maintenance, and a delayed call from the USCG on the danger of the storm.

No bodies have ever been recovered from the disaster. Once the wrecked boat was found, it was discovered that the ship had broken in 2. It still sits at the bottom of Lake Superior, 530 feet down. Though some divers have gone down to see it, the Canadian government has prohibited access to the wreck site.

The wreck was immortalized in a song that I learned in 5th grade. Candidly, I thought people only wrote songs about disasters like, way in the past, so I always thought this happened 100 years ago. But nope, it has only been 55 years.

This was truly a perfect storm. All of the factors, and honestly, all of the theories could go hand in hand. They had a poor idea about how bad the storm really was, and weren't notified until it was too late that they needed to seek shelter. There were structural issues with the boat, exacerbated by an unprecedented storm. They were truly in the wrong place at the wrong time, and 29 people died because of it.

I definitely think it was a wave that officially took them down. It is so eerie that the Captain's last words were that they were holding their own, and within 10 minutes, everyone had died. Though it could have been something with a bit more of a slow burn, I think it makes sense that they truly thought they were out of the woods until a giant wave hit and took them under. I genuinely shudder to think about the fear they all felt the entire time, but especially in that moment.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was one of the worst Great Lakes shipwrecks of all time, and at least to me, one of the most well known of all time outside of the Titanic. But while songs are sung and history is taught, it is important to remember that 29 people lost their lives that day. Rest in peace to the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, 55 years later.


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