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10 November 2007 @ 09:01 am
32 years ago the SS Edmund Fitzgerald (nicknamed "Mighty Fitz," "The Fitz" or "The Big Fitz") sank suddenly during a gale storm on Lake Superior. The ship went down without a distress signal in 530 feet (162 m) of water at 46°59.9′N, 85°6.6′W, in Canadian waters about 17 miles (15 nmi; 27 km) from the entrance to Whitefish Bay. All 29 members of the crew perished.


Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin on the afternoon of November 9, 1975 under Captain Ernest M. McSorley. She was en route to the steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit, Michigan, with a full cargo of taconite. A second freighter, Arthur M. Anderson, destined for Gary, Indiana out of Two Harbors, Minnesota, joined up with Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, being the faster ship, took the lead while Anderson trailed not far behind.

Crossing Lake Superior at about 13 knots (15 mph, 24 km/h), the boats encountered a massive winter storm, reporting winds in excess of 50 knots (90 km/h) and waves as high as 35 feet (10 m). Because of the storm, the Soo Locks were closed. The freighters altered their courses northward, seeking shelter along the Canadian coast. Later, they would cross to Whitefish Bay and approach the Sault Ste. Marie locks.

On the afternoon of November 10, Fitzgerald reported a minor list developing and top-side damage including the loss of radar, but did not indicate a serious problem. She slowed to come within range of receiving Anderson's radar data and for a time Anderson guided the Fitzgerald toward the relative safety of Whitefish Bay. The last communication from the boat came at approximately 19:10 (7:10 PM), when Anderson notified Fitzgerald of being hit by rogue waves or perhaps seiche waves large enough to be caught on radar, that were heading Fitzgerald's way and asked how she was doing. McSorley reported, "We are holding our own." A few minutes later, she suddenly sank – no distress signal was received. A short ten minutes later Anderson could neither raise Fitzgerald nor detect her on radar. At 20:32, Anderson informed the U.S. Coast Guard of their concern for the boat.

Once Anderson noted the loss of Fitzgerald, a search was launched for survivors. The initial search consisted of Anderson, and a second freighter, SS William Clay Ford. The efforts of a third freighter, the Canadian vessel Hilda Marjanne, were foiled by the weather. The U.S. Coast Guard launched three aircraft, but could not mobilize any ships. A Coast Guard buoy tender, Woodrush, was able to launch within two and a half hours, but took a day to arrive. The search recovered debris, including lifeboats and rafts, but no survivors.

The wreck was first located by a U.S. Navy aircraft with on-board magnetic anomaly detector equipment, normally used to detect submarines. The wreck was further surveyed using side scan sonar on November 14 to November 16 by the Coast Guard. The sonar revealed two large objects lying close together on the lake floor. A second survey took place from November 22 through November 25 by a private contractor, Seaward, Inc.

In 1976, from May 20 to May 28, an unmanned U.S. Navy submersible photographed the wreck. This submersible, CURV III, consisted of an underwater vehicle connected via umbilical control to a surface support ship. On-board imaging equipment included one 35 mm still and two black-and-white video cameras. It found Edmund Fitzgerald lying in two large pieces in 530 feet (160 m) of water. The bow section, approximately 276 feet (84 m) long, lay upright in the mud. The stern section lay 170 feet (52 m) away, inverted (face down), at a 50-degree angle from the bow. Metal and taconite heaps between the bow and stern composed the remnants of the mid-section.

When Fitzgerald first vanished, it was widely believed the boat had snapped in half on the lake surface owing to storm action. Similar surface breakups in the past suggested bow and stern sections would be found miles apart on the lake floor. When underwater surveys revealed these sections were just yards from each other, it was concluded that Fitzgerald had instead broken upon hitting the lake floor.

A Coast Guard investigation postulated that the accident was caused by ineffective hatch closures. These devices were unable to prevent waves from inundating the cargo hold. The flooding occurred gradually and probably imperceptibly throughout the final day, and finally resulted in a fatal loss of buoyancy and stability. As a result, the boat plummeted to the bottom without warning.

The Coast Guard report proved controversial. The most common alternative theory contends that inoperative radar forced the crew to rely on inaccurate charts. As a result, Fitzgerald briefly ran aground or scraped a shoal near Caribou Island without the crew being aware of it. Consequently, she received bottom damage, which caused her to gradually take on water until she sank so suddenly in the deep water that none of her crew had time to react. The ship, pile-driving into the lake bottom, snapped in half, and its stern landed upside-down on the bottom. This theory is supported by final radio communications between Anderson and Fitzgerald; Anderson had been struck by two large waves that were heading toward Fitzgerald. If the hull had indeed been breached, it would be difficult to prove. Fitzgerald has settled in mud up to her load marks, making it impossible to inspect for damage.

A documentary created and aired by the Discovery Channel investigated a large "fold" found in the hull plating. Previous defects with cargo hold covers and clamps as well as cracking issues were also addressed. Through the use of wave tanks and computer simulation, the Discovery Channel team concluded the loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was due to a freak wave. Reports show three large waves were detected, two of which were reported by the Edmund Fitzgerald. As per the investigation, it was theorized that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was badly battered by the first two waves, further damaging the dual radar (which shared a common antenna) and the hatch covers. It is surmised that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald took on water through the damaged cargo hold covers and was then overwhelmed by the third wave.

The ship's bell was recovered from the wreck on July 4, 1995 and is now in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point near Paradise, Michigan. An anchor from Fitzgerald lost on an earlier trip was recovered from the Detroit River and is on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit, Michigan. Some other artifacts may be found at the museum that is the Steamship Valley Camp in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. These include Lifeboat #2 (shredded like paper) and some photos, a movie on the Fitz and commemorative models and paintings.

The day after the wreck, Mariners' Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times, once for each life lost. The church continues to hold an annual memorial, which includes reading the names of the crewmen and ringing the church bell. On November 12, 2006, two days after the 31st anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the church broadened its scope to remember all of the more than 6,000 lives lost on the Great Lakes. In 2006, the bell at Mariners' Church tolled eight times, not the usual 29: five times for the 5 Great Lakes, a sixth time for the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, a seventh for the St. Lawrence Seaway and an eighth time for military personnel whose lives were lost.

Although it is the latest vessel lost, and the largest, Fitzgerald is not alone on the bottom. The Great Lakes have a long history of nautical disaster; nearly 6,000 shipwrecks have occurred since 1878, with about a quarter of those being listed as total losses. Some ships and crews simply vanished in storms. A number of diveable marine preserves have been established that contain multiple sunken ships.

Every November 10, Split Rock Lighthouse in Silver Bay, Minnesota emits a light in honor of the "Edmund Fitzgerald".

In 2005, efforts were underway to establish in Washington, D.C. a memorial remembering all lost Great Lakes mariners. A campaign to establish November 10 as "Great Lakes Mariners Day" fell short when in 1994, the House of Representatives ended the practice of annual Congressional recognition days.

In 1976, Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot recorded the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", commemorating the events surrounding the sinking of the ship.

Coast Guard Cutter Woodrush was replaced by a brand new buoy tender in 2001, USCGC Maple. On her maiden voyage, the Maple visited the final resting place of the Edmund Fitzgerald and dropped the last Woodrush life ring down to the wreck.