On 10 November 1975 a ferocious storm swirled over Lake Superior, the result of two weather systems clashing. It was one of the worst storms in the collective memory of many experiencing it. And caught in the middle was the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.
The “Big Fitz” had been launched on 7 June 1958. At that time the 728-foot freighter was the biggest, and one of the speediest, vessels plowing the waters of the Great Lakes. She would lose that title in 1971 to another vessel that surpassed the Fitzgerald in size. Still the Fitzgerald was something to be proud of. Although owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company she was operated by Oglebay-Norton Company. Oglebay-Norton showed their appreciation for the vessel by making her their flagship.
In seventeen years of operation four different captains had commanded the Fitzgerald. Her latest was Ernest McSorley, the fourth and last captain of the Fitzgerald. McSorley was a respected skipper if a little distant from his crew. His second-in-command, good-humored First Mate Jack McCarthy, was also well-liked. McCarthy had been sailing under McSorley since 1970. While a large contingent of the crew were die-hard sailors there were a few who did not plan to stick it out. Crewman Karl Peckol was working towards a college education; First Assistant Engineer Edward Bindon was planning on making this voyage his last one.
On November 9 the Fitzgerald loaded up her cargo in Superior, Wisconsin before setting out for Zug Island. Sailing nearby was the SS Arthur M. Anderson. It was not until later the next day that the weather began to take a turn for the worse. The Fitzgerald being the swifter of the two easily outpaced the Anderson. It was not long before she was some miles ahead of the Anderson. By that time the lake was rocking the vessels on Lake Superior. At 3:15 p.m. the Fitzgerald sustained damage. According to one theory, inaccurate charts led the Fitzgerald into Six Fathoms Shoal. There the hull dragged along the shoal and her hull sustained considerable damage.
The Fitzgerald was listing and taking on water. McSorely had two of the ship’s pumps operating to keep the incoming water in check. At 4:00 p.m. the Fitzgerald’s radar antennae were carried away and the vessel lost the use of a valuable navigational tool. It was up to the Anderson to give the Fitzgerald a hand by providing McSorley with radar plots. In the meantime McSorely would try to make for shelter in Whitefish Bay which was still some hours off. At 4:39 p.m. McSorely contacted the Grand Maris Coast Guard Station to inquire about the the radio beacon at Whitefish Point Light Station. The Fitzgerald had been using the homing beacon as a further navigational aid when the station lost power. Throughout the night futile efforts were made to get the station up and running.
Darkness had closed in and the snow was coming down heavily. Winds were reaching speed of 90 mph and waves had grown to over 30-feet tall. Trough this the Anderson continued to monitor the Fitzgerald. In their last transmission McSorely had stated “We’re holding our own”. At 7:15 p.m. Captain Jesse Cooper of the Anderson was observing the Fitzgerald on the radar when a snow squall came up and the Fitzgerald disappeared from the radar. About ten minutes later the squall cleared but the Fitzgerald did not reappear on the radar. She had vanished. Cooper tried to raise the Fitzgerald but received no answer. At first he thought the signal was too weak, but other vessels heard Cooper’s transmissions loud and clear. Cooper inquired of the other ships if they had seen or heard from the Fitzgerald. The answer was always no.
Worried over the Fitzgerald Cooper contacted the Coast Guard. The first time scant attention was paid to the Fitzgerald and Cooper was instead informed to keep an eye out for a missing craft. About an hour later Cooper again contacted the Coast Guard. This time the Coast Guard tried to contact the Fitzgerald. No response was received. Hours after the Fitzgerald had disappeared the Cost Guard sent out aircraft and ships to conduct search-and-rescue operations. Given the weather conditions and delays suffered by the rescue ships and planes, it was not likely anyone alive would be found when all was said and done. That is assuming that the Fitzgerald had sunk and there were survivors in the water.
The Coast Guard asked the Anderson to return to the site of the Fitzgerald’s disappearance. The choice was up to him, they said, but it was preferable that he did return. Cooper was reluctant to place his ship in the same danger, but complied. In addition to the cutters that the Coast Guard dispatched another brave merchant vessel, the William Clay Ford, ventured out of Whitefish Bay to take part in the searching. At one point the Ford, and other ships, spotted a light on the beach. Hopes soared at the thought of the Fitzgerald having gone aground. But that was not to be. One of the search planes flew over and informed the ship that hunters chasing deer were responsible for the flashes of light.
The next morning wreckage was found. The Anderson located the battered remains of one of the Fitzgerald’s lifeboats. Sadly no survivors were found. Already people were combing the shores for bodies. But not even corpses would be located. The Edmund Fitzgerald took her entire crew, 29 men, with her when she sank. And with them went answers to many questions. There is some controversy surrounding the ship and many unanswered questions about what exactly happened that night. But in the words of Gordon Lightfoot, “The legend lives on”.