Tragic casualty not forgotten after 34 years
On November 10, 1975, the Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior during an early winter storm, with a loss of all 29 crewmembers. When launched in 1958, it was the largest ship on the Great Lakes, a distinction it held until 1971. It was able to carry over 26,000 tons of taconite ore between the loading ports in Duluth/Superior and the steel mills in Detroit, Toledo, and elsewhere on the lakes. The laker departed Superior, Wisconsin on November 9 with a full load of taconite bound for Detroit. Another laker, the Arthur M. Anderson trailed not far behind. Late on November 10, the two vessels were near the eastern end of Lake Superior. They were encountering sustained 50-knot winds with occasional hurricane-force gusts, along with heavy snow. The Fitzgerald developed a minor list, topside damage, and loss of its radar. The two lakers were in regular radio communication. At 7:30 p.m., the master of the Fitzgerald advised the master of the Anderson: “We are holding our own.” The Fitzgerald apparently sank suddenly a few minutes later. It disappeared from the Anderson’s radar and did not respond to radio calls. The Coast Guard issued an alert about an hour later and commenced a search. Some debris, including lifeboats and rafts were recovered. The wreck, in two large pieces, was located on the bottom of Lake Superior about a week later. The US Coast Guard investigation postulated that the sinking was caused by ineffective hatch covers. A more likely theory is that the laker, without radar and relying on inaccurate charts, crossed over and briefly touched bottom on a shoal located just outside the usual shipping route. This caused bottom damage and allowed the ingress of water into the cargo holds. Stresses following from the high seas and the extreme length of the vessel caused the hull to snap, resulting in a sudden and catastrophic sinking. A number of books have been published concerning the sinking and Gordon Lightfoot wrote and recorded the hit song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. While there have been a number of vessel casualties on the Great Lakes, this remains the most remembered.