On this day in 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sinks in Lake Superior, killing all 29 crew members on board. It was the worst single accident in Lake Superior’s history.
The ship weighed more than 13,000 tons and was 730 feet long. It was launched in 1958 as the biggest carrier in the Great Lakes and became the first ship to carry more than a million tons of iron ore through the Soo Locks.
On November 9, the Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, with 26,000 tons of ore heading for Detroit, Michigan. The following afternoon, Ernest McSorely, the captain of the Fitzgerald and a 44-year veteran, contacted the Avafor, another ship traveling on Lake Superior and reported that his ship had encountered “one of the worst seas he had ever been in.” The Fitzgerald had lost its radar equipment and was listing badly to one side.
A couple of hours later, another ship made contact and was told that the Fitzgerald was holding its own. However, minutes afterward, the Fitzgerald disappeared from radar screens. A subsequent investigation showed that the sinking of the Fitzgerald occurred very suddenly; no distress signal was sent and the condition of the lifeboats suggested that little or no attempt was made to abandon the ship.
One possible reason for the wreck is that the Fitzgerald was carrying too much cargo. This made the ship sit low in the water and made it more vulnerable to being overwhelmed by a sudden large wave. The official report also cited the possibility that the hatches to the cargo area may have been faulty, leading to a sudden shift of the cargo that capsized the boat.
The Fitzgerald was eventually found 530 feet below the surface, 17 miles from Whitefish Bay, at the northeastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The ship had broken into two parts that were found approximately 150 feet apart. As there were no survivors among the 29 crewmembers, there will likely never be a definitive explanation of the Fitzgerald‘s sinking.
The Fitzgerald‘s sinking was the worst wreck in the Great Lakes since November 29, 1966, when 28 people died in the sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell in Lake Huron.
The disaster was immortalized in song the following year in Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”