At the time of her launch in June of 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest vessel of her kind. At a length of 729 feet long and 75 feet wide, and equipped with a 7,500 horsepower steam turbine engine, she had the ability to carry an incredible 27,500 tons of cargo.
She and her crew served the Great Lakes for 17 years, until November 10th, 1975. It was on that day, according to the famous tune by Gordon Lightfoot, that the “Witch of November came stealin’.”
That tragic November day marks the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Click here to see underwater video of the wreck.
The Final Trip
Under the direction of veteran Captain Ernest McSorley, the freighter departed Superior, Wisconsin, on the afternoon of November 9th at around 2:15 p.m. As she departed she carried a load of taconite pellets that totaled 26,116 tons.
As the Fitzgerald experienced temperatures just above freezing in Duluth Harbor, an area of low pressure was developing in central Kansas. That area of low pressure would ultimately be responsible for the treacherous weather that would await the Fitzgerald the next day.
Shortly after the ship departed Wisconsin and headed for Zug Island on the Detroit River, the National Weather Service issued a Gale Warning for the night of November 9th for winds up to 45 knots (around 52 mph).
- NWS definition of Gale Warning: A warning of sustained surface winds or frequent gusts, in the range of 34 to 47 knots (39 to 54 MPH).
After the warning had been issued, Captain McSorley acknowledged that he had received the gale warning to Jesse B. Cooper, who was the captain of the Arthur M. Anderson. The Anderson was another freighter that would be traveling closely with the Fitzgerald across Lake Superior.
Later that night around 7 p.m., the area of low pressure in central Kansas had moved into Iowa, with a pressure of 993 millibars.
Around 1 a.m., the Edmund Fitzgerald and Arthur M. Anderson were just to the southeast of Isle Royale. At that time, the Fitz reported winds of 52 knots (around 60 mph) and 10 foot waves.
Not long after that report, at around 2 a.m., the National Weather Service issued a storm warning for Lake Superior for waves of 8 to 15 feet and winds of 50 knots, which was concerning to both Captain McSorley and Cooper.
Overnight the Fitzgerald had pulled ahead of the Anderson, and at 7 a.m., the area of low pressure had strengthened to a 983 millibar storm and was near Marquette. At the time of that observation the Fitz noted winds of 35 knots and 10 foot waves.
As the low pushed off to the northeast, the winds began to switch to the northwesterly direction. At Stannard Rock, those winds were gusting at 59 knots (around 68 mph). The two freighters were near the Canadian shoreline, heading toward Michipicoten Island, with the Fitzgerald 8 miles ahead of the Anderson.
As they headed off to the southeast at 2:45 p.m., the Anderson reported winds of 42 knots (around 48 mph), with waves increasing in height, around 12-16 feet. With the worsening weather conditions, the Soo Locks had been closed.
Around 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, Captain McSorley radioed back to the Anderson that they had developed a list, or a tilt, causing the Fitzgerald to reduce its speed to reduce the distance between the two ships.
Thirty minutes later the strongest wind gust to that point had been observed by the Anderson, one of hurricane force at 75 knots (around 86 mph). In addition to the list of the ship, the Fitz eventually lost both radars and would now rely on the Anderson for navigation.
The ships continued their trek to the southeast and as they neared Caribou Island the Anderson reported winds of 52 knots, with increasing wave heights of 12 to 18 feet.
Meanwhile, the Fitzgerald reported taking heavy seas across the deck of the ship, and McSorley told another nearby ship, the Avafors, that it was one of the worst storms that he had ever been in.
They moved toward Whitefish Point where the Fitzgerald encountered the worst winds and waves of the trip. Wave heights during this point were an estimated 25 feet. The Anderson also experienced waves around 25 feet.
The National Weather Service notes that rogue, peak waves could be 1.5 to 2 times bigger than that.
With the Fitzgerald ahead of the Anderson, Captain Cooper radioed McSorley to see how they were doing. McSorley replied “We’re holding our own.” That line was the last communication heard from the Fitzgerald.
The large freighter went down approximately 17 miles away from Whitefish Point, tragically losing a crew of 29 officers and crew members. According to the National Weather Service in Marquette, she is the largest ship to go down in the Great Lakes.
Cause of the Wreck
The Coast Guard concluded after the wreck that there were a few factors that caused the Edmund Fitzgerald to go down.
The first factor was the Fitzgerald sat low in the water, which allowed more water to flood the deck of the ship. With loose hatch covers in the cargo area, water was able to quickly enter that part of the ship, weighing the ship down and causing it to take on more and more water.
The final factor was water possibly entering through the hull of the ship due to a grounding of the ship near Caribou Island.
It should also be noted that there are several other theories, outside of just the Coast Guard report.
Modern Day Study
In 2006, Thomas R. Hultquist, Michael R. Dutter, and David J. Schwab did a reexamination of the weather events that led to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The conclusion of this study was the worst conditions of the storm occurred at the same time and location that the Fitzgerald was located when it went down.
Using the technology of today’s weather models, the study was able to show sustained winds of 48 knots (around 55 mph) and significant wave heights of 25+ feet.
To read the complete study, head here: https://www.glerl.noaa.gov//pubs/fulltext/2006/20060016.pdf
*** Editor’s note: The information in the article below was written with information provided in a historical live tweet by the National Weather Service in Marquette Michigan. You can find that and more information here: http://www.weather.gov/mqt/fitz_fitzb ***