By Hugh E. Bishop
An entire generation now has no active memory of November 10, 1975, but the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald continues to fascinate, mystify and preoccupy young and old.
Part of that fascination, despite the 25-year span since the foundering of the big ore freighter, results from Gordon Lightfoot’s monster best-selling recording about the wreck and part likely springs from the inconclusive nature of any “facts” surrounding the sinking. Without direct witnesses or survivors, every explanation about the cause of the wreck is purely theoretical and, from the very beginning, a rash of theories concerning it were postulated.
What is known is that 29 men lost their lives in the cold waters of Lake Superior and that their families continue to mourn in private amid the celebrity of the shipwreck.
What also can be stated with certainty is that sometime between 7:10 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., the Fitzgerald simply disappeared into Lake Superior about 15 miles from the shelter of Whitefish Bay just west of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, during ferocious northwest winds and seas that washed as high as eight to 12 feet over the ship’s main deck. The Arthur M. Anderson, an ore carrier in the U.S. Steel fleet, had been trailing and providing navigational information to the Fitzgerald because the Fitz’s radars had malfunctioned about four hours earlier. Captain Jessie B. “Bernie” Cooper of the Anderson reported his concern for the Fitzgerald to the Coast Guard station in Sault Ste. Marie at 7:39 p.m., continued to try to raise radio contact with the big ship. He again voiced grave concern that the Fitzgerald was missing at 8:32 p.m.
Search and rescue efforts started immediately after Cooper’s second call, but the nearest Coast Guard vessel that could sail in the huge seas was the Woodrush, stationed 300 miles away in Duluth, Minnesota. Coast Guard aircraft were on the scene by 10:55 p.m. Commercial vessels in the protective waters of Whitefish Bay were requested to form a search effort and several, including the Anderson, did venture out of shelter to search the storm-tossed seas for survivors. None, of course, were found and only floating debris gave clues that the Fitzgerald and its crew were lost.
Within days, the location of the wreck on the bottom of the lake was pinpointed by U.S. Navy aircraft and the following spring the Coast Guard positively identified the wreckage using underwater photography.
But the questions surrounding the cause of the wreck kept mounting and continue to do so.
Officially, the report of the U.S. Coast Guard marine board of inquiry states that the most probable cause of the sinking was loss of buoyancy due to massive flooding of the cargo hold through ineffective hatch closures.
That finding was quickly challenged by the Lake Carriers’ Association (LCA) and by many seasoned sailors. The LCA stated that the patented steel hatch covers had been in continuous use for more than 30 years and had proven to be effective hatch closures in all weather conditions throughout that period. Instead, the LCA theorized that the lost freighter had stumbled over the Six-Fathom Shoal at the north end of Caribou Island, sustaining damage that would prove to be fatal to the ship.
Whatever the cause, the Fitzgerald took a starboard list as it passed Caribou. Reporting to the Anderson, the Fitz’s Captain Ernest McSorley revealed the list and had activated two large ballast tank pumps to control it. He reduced speed to allow the Anderson to close the 17-mile gap between them. A bit later, McSorley reported that his radars weren’t working and requested that the Anderson keep track of his route and give him navigational aid.
Meantime, northwest winds built massive seas from the starboard quarter (right rear), washing powerful waves completely over the deck as the ship left the eastern lee of Caribou Island. In testimony before the marine board, Captain Cooper said that 10 miles southeast of Caribou he had waves cresting over the pilothouse - 35 feet above the waterline.
Ten miles ahead, Captain McSorley learned from Captain Cedric Woodard, a U.S. pilot aboard the Swedish-flagged Avafors, that neither the light nor directional radio beacon at Whitefish Point were working. Captain Woodard, who was acquainted with McSorley and had talked with him many times previously, said in testimony that he didn’t recognize the voice when first they spoke and that McSorley sounded strange.
Still later, at about 6 p.m., Woodard called the Fitz to report that the light had just come on at Whitefish Point. During that conversation, he stated that McSorley inadvertently left the microphone on when he said to someone in his pilothouse, “Don’t allow nobody on deck,” also saying something about a vent that Woodard couldn’t understand.
In Lake Superior Port Cities Inc.’s newly released book, The Night the Fitz Went Down, Captain Dudley Paquette vividly describes his voyage through the massive seas of the November 9-10, 1975, storm as master of the downbound Inland Steel Company’s SS Wilfred Sykes. He is particularly intrigued by the command that Woodard overheard.
“In those seas, such a command goes without saying, so why did McSorley have to emphasize it?” he asks. “There had to have been something happening on the deck that a mate thought they had to get control of - even if it meant putting lives in danger.”
Whatever prompted that command just a little over an hour before the sinking, Paquette analyzes that it would have been catastrophic and visible from the pilothouse in the darkness of an early November evening. That would likely mean that it was at the forward end of the weather deck. Previously suggested possibilities are that a hatch cover washed off or the heavy deck crane or the spare blade for the propeller broke loose and crashed about.