What Sank the Edmund Fitzgerald?

By | June 22, 2018

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The 729-foot ore boat Edmund Fitzgerald, shown in 1972 file photo, sank with all 30-35 hands on board. (Getty Images)

In November 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald, the largest cargo ship on the Great Lakes, sailed alongside another ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, across the stormy Lake Superior in route to Detroit from Superior, Wisconsin. When a storm kicked up, the two ships, laden with iron ore, became separated. The Arthur M. Anderson, captained by Jesse Cooper, sought shelter in Whitefish Point where Captain Cooper contacted the Coast Guard about the Edmund Fitzgerald, whose captain, Ernest McSorely, had radioed that the ship was taking on water. At 7:10 p.m., the captain radioed the message “We are holding our own.” Five minutes later, the ship disappeared from radar and was never heard from again. The ship and all 29 sailors on board were lost to the icy waters of the northernmost Great Lake and were immortalized in the Gordon Lightfoot song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” While it is easy to chalk up the shipwreck to bad weather, the ship was built to handle the wind and waves and had been doing so for 15 years. Several theories have been presented to explain what could have finally sunk this formidable cargo vessel.

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Stormy Weather

The day before the shipwreck, the National Weather Service has issued gale warnings for Lake Superior, but by the next morning, those warnings had been downgraded. The wind and waves were certainly comparable to other storms Captain McSorely and the Edmund Fitzgerald had easily weathered. Computer simulation models that were created by NOAA in 2005 showed that wind speeds on Lake Superior on the day of the shipwreck could have reached hurricane strength as the winds picked up speed across the expanse of water. The wind and waves could have caused the mighty ship to capsize.