The Edmund Fitzgerald:
The Edmund Fitzgerald was built in River Rouge, Michigan in 1958 with the hull number 301 (McCall) . The job was completed with the help of one thousand men. The Fitzgerald was seven hundred twenty nine feet long and was the largest freighter on the Great Lakes at the time. Mrs. Edmund Fitzgerald christened it on June 8, 1958 before sliding into the Detroit River (Nolan) . The Fitzgerald set numerous shipping records before its last voyage. In 1964 it became the first Great Lakes vessel to carry more than a million gross tons of ore through the Soo Locks. It then broke its own record by hauling 1.2 million tons through the Locks (Stonehouse 13) . This is why the Fitzgerald was labeled “The Pride of the American Flag” (Stonehouse 13) .
Over the years people have speculated what actually happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald. Nobody witnessed the Fitzgerald actually sink so there are many theories of what people think happened. Studies of the wreckage and the sight of where it went down disproved all the theories. Based on the weather conditions, the boats condition, its last voyage, and the Marine Casualty Report an answer of the cause was concluded.
The storm was generated over the Oklahoma Panhandle on November 8, 1975. It moved northeasterly towards the Lake Superior. On November 9, the National Weather Service issued warnings of winds of thirty-four to forty-seven knots for Lake Superior (”Marine Accident Report”) . They also predicted rain and thunderstorms with waves eight to fifteen feet.
At 1:00 a.m. on November 10, the Fitzgerald reported winds at fifty-two knots and waves ten feet tall. At this time the Fitzgerald was twenty miles south of Isle Royal. An hour later the National Weather Service issued a storm warning. The NWS predicted winds now thirty-five to fifty knots northeasterly with waves eight to fifteen feet. At 7:00 a.m. the Fitzgerald was forty-five miles north of Copper Harbor, Michigan and reported winds at thirty-five knots and waves at ten feet (”Marine Accident Report”) . Later on at 1:00 p.m. the storm had crossed Lake Superior to the west of Michipicoten Island and was over White River, Ontario. The NWS again predicted at 4:39 p.m. Eastern Lake Superior with Northwest winds 38 to 52 knots with gusts to 60 knots with waves eight to sixteen feet. The Anderson, which was following the Fitzgerald, reported at 7:00 p.m. winds at fifty knots and waves at sixteen feet. These were the weather reports before the downing of the Fitzgerald.
After the tragic event an NWS meteorologist testified saying before the Fitzgerald sank the average sustained wind speed was forty-five knots from the northwest for a period of six to seven hours(”Marine Casualty Report” 11) . With these winds they would produce waves with an average height if fifteen feet.
Wear and Tear
Since it was first commissioned it was capable of performing 45-50 trips a year. Over the years of all the trips the Fitzgerald was put through a lot of wear and tear. Between the years of 1969 and 1970 it ran aground near the Soo Locks and suffered internal and external damage. Adding additional stiffening to the keelsons quickly solved the problem. Between 1973 and 1974 the cracking problem reoccurred from the previous problem. This time it was fixed by welding during its winter lay-up. Also during its lay-up minor fractures were detected in the hatch covers and the gunwale bar (”Marine Casualty Report” 8) . Original construction faults and original design detail caused the fractures defects, which were fixed. On October 31, 1975 the Fitzgerald was found to have damaged hatch covers on four of its hatches. The structural defects were on hatch No. 13 were there was a 1 inch notch in the plate in the way of the hatch, a 1 inch gouge in the plate in way of hatch No. 15, a 10 inch crack in hatch No. 16, and a 1 inch crack at the intersection on No. 21 (”Marine Casualty Report” 9) . The Coast Guard who conducted the inspection ordered the defects of the hatches to be fixed before the 1976-shipping season (Wesley) .
The Final Voyage
Its final voyage began on November 9, 1975, when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald began loading 26,116 tons of taconite pellets at Burlington Northern Railroad Dock No. 1 in Superior, WI (Stonehouse 24) . It departed from the docks at 2:15 that afternoon and proceeded on its designated course at 16.3 mph across Lake Superior. The trip was routine and normal until the morning of November 10 when a storm warning was issued. After this warning the Fitzgerald discussed with the Anderson, another freighter which was following at approximately 10 miles, to change their designated course (McCall) . They decided to leave the southern shore of Lake Superior and proceed northeastward south of Isle Royal, then eastward along the northern shore, and then southeastward along the eastern shore (Stonehouse 25) . The change in their route would allow the two ships to take advantage of the Canadian Shore, which was away from the wind.
While on this new course around 3:30 the Fitzgerald radio to the Anderson reporting “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have sustained some topside damage. I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I m checking down. Will stay by me till I get to Whitefish” (Wesley) . The Fitzgerald was rigged with four electric 7000 gallon per minute ballast pumps and two electric 2000 per minute auxiliary pumps. These pumps could be used to de-water the cargo hold through two suctions. The Fitzgerald was also equipped with two radar s that they lost around 4:30 p.m. The Fitzgerald now had to be guided by the help of the Anderson. The Fitzgerald could not see the Whitefish Point light and they couldn t pick up the radio beacon. At 7:10 p.m. the Anderson radioed the Fitzgerald to warn of another vessel nine miles saying:
“Fitzgerald, this is the Anderson. Have you checked down?”
“Yes we have.”
“Fitzgerald, we are about 10 miles behind you, and gaining about 1 1/2 miles per hour. Fitzgerald, there is a target 19 miles ahead of us. So the target would be 9 miles ahead of you.”
“Well, am I going to clear?”
“Yes. He is going to pass to the west of you.”
“Well, fine.” (Wesley)
This was the last radio transmission between the two boats. Shortly after the transmission the Fitzgerald was lost in sight due to the snow and weather. This was the last time anybody has ever seen the Fitzgerald.
Marine Casualty Report
From the information obtained above, the report came up with the conclusion the Edmund Fitzgerald went down because of massive flooding. The cause of the sinking first began with the report of topside damage which was the lose of two vents, a fence rail, and both pumps operating. Since the pumps were going that means that flooding was occurring in one of its ballast tanks. Because of the severe seas, water was entering the ship through non-weather tight hatch covers of the cargo hold. Another problem was the sheer strake, which extended the length of the vessel and was 15 3/8 inches above the weather deck (”Marine Casualty Report” 4) . With the severe seas the waves that came over deck would have caused the water to be trapped and enter through the hatches. If the hatches were flooding it could have been severe enough to cause the cargo hold to fill up with water.
The flooding of the ballast tanks, the cargo hold, and the deck would have caused the decrease in the vessels freeboard. Since the Fitzgerald was already three feet deeper in the water then normally more water would enter the vessel. The vessel wasn t equipped with sounding tubes or other devices to determine if there was any flooding of the cargo hold. The only way to inspect the cargo holds was visually and the only way to determine if there was water in the cargo holds is if the water exceeded the height of the cargo. There was a bilge pump located in the cargo hold but by testimony it was impossible to pump water if there was bulk cargo (Marine Casualty Report) . The cargo would tend to clog the pump and make it useless causing the cargo hold to fill up. In a couple minutes the cargo hold could have caused the ship to plummet to the bottom of Lake Superior.
Theories behind the Sinking
Since there were no survivors or witnesses of the sinking of the Fitzgerald there are many theories behind the sinking. These theories have all been proved wrong through studies. One theory that many people believe is that the boat broke in half. The storm was producing waves of 20 plus feet. This one theory believes that two twenty-foot waves picked up either end of the boat. When this happened from the weight of the freighter cargo would make the boat buckle and split in half. This theory was disproved because studies have been made to see if it would be possible with the boat weight and the conditions of the water. It wouldn t be possible for this to happen.
A second theory is based upon the course change and the lose of the boats radar. It was speculated that the Fitzgerald bottomed out near Fathom Shoal. The damage sustained from the bottoming out would have caused the boat to sink. The surveying of the wreckage also disproved this theory. The wreckage showed there was no damage to the hull or any signs of bottoming out.
The last theory is that the series of clamps that were used to hold down the steel weren t fastened. In the rough seas from the November storm the cargo would have shifted. Even if the cargo shifted it wouldn t have been able to make the boat shift and cause the boat to go down.
The Wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald is located about 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point and lies at the depth of 530 feet (Stonehouse 44) . It has been twenty-five years now since the tragic November storm. There have been many stories and theories of why the Fitzgerald went down but one thing for certain is that it took 29 lives. The cause was by massive flooding but was this event preventable. I guess the ship that lies in the frigid waters of Lake Superior has taken the truth with it. It s been twenty-five years but the memory of the Edmund Fitzgerald is still around.