CBC Digital Archives

1975: 29 die in the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald

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On the night of Nov. 10, 1975, the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald were fighting their way through a winter storm on their way to delivering a load of iron ore across Lake Superior. After withstanding fierce winds and high waves for much of the day, the ship suddenly disappeared from sight - leaving nothing but battered lifeboats, twisted metal and a mystery.
This CBC Radio clip recounts the desperate search for survivors, in a tragedy that would claim 29 lives and be memorialized in story and song.
• The Edmund Fitzgerald set out from Superior, WI around 2 p.m. EST on Nov. 9, 1975 loaded with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets. The freighter was bound for a Detroit steelyard.
• Severe storm warnings the following afternoon forced the crew to head for safe harbour at Sault Ste-Marie, ON. Five hours later the ship and its 29 crewmembers, disappeared just a few miles from shore.

• The 222-metre long freighter was built in 1958 by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, WI.
• At the time, it was the biggest ship in its class on the Great Lakes.
• The Fitzgerald was named after a CEO of Northwestern Mutual, and was christened by his wife.

• Sailing alongside another laker, the SS Arthur M. Anderson, the Fitzgerald was expecting a normal voyage on Nov. 9. Its captain, E.R. McSorley, was a life-long sailor and was accustomed to severe winter conditions.
• Around 2 p.m. the next day, the two ships changed their route to avoid a storm on the south shore of lake Superior. McSorley radioed the Anderson, which was travelling a few miles behind, around 5 p.m. to say they were taking on water.

• The Fitzgerald suddenly vanished from sight and radar around 7 p.m.
• An investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard concluded that the cargo vessel sank around 7:15 p.m. just 27 km from the entrance to Whitefish Bay, MI.
• "No distress call was heard by vessels or shore stations," the report stated.
• In an interview with the Toronto Star, Captain Ferdinand Gagne whose ship the SS Fort Henry was on Lake Superior that night, said he was in contact with McSorley shortly before the disaster.

• "He said [the winds] were pounding hell out of him, but he was still making headway."
• In 1977, a U.S. Coast Guard report blamed the Fitzgerald's sinking on "sudden massive flooding of the cargo hold due to the collapse of one or more [faulty] hatch covers."
• Two years later, the National Transportation Safety Board challenged the claim that faulty hatches played a role. A NTSB investigation concluded that the sinking was caused by water that flowed in through hatches damaged by the high winds and intense waves.

• Many theories about the cause of the wreck exist. The Lake Carriers Association maintains that the Fitzgerald sank after hitting a shoal, which tore a hole in its hull.
• With a surface area of 82,000 square kilometres, Lake Superior is the biggest of the five lakes and is considered the most dangerous. Bordered by and Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, Superior is especially hazardous in the winter when snow and winds sweep in from the mainland.

• "I'd rather be caught in a North Atlantic storm than a Superior storm any time," Joe Shoup, a ship engineer from Port Colborne, ON. told the Toronto Star in 1976. "The waves on the Atlantic are further apart and the ship rolls up and over them, but on Superior the waves are closer together and they hammer away at the boat - it's like hitting a solid wall every time."
• Since ships began sailing on the Great Lakes around the end of 19th century, there have been more 6,000 shipwrecks and more than 30,000 mariners have died.

• Folk singer Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the nautical disaster in his 1976 hit The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The song has since been covered by the Barenaked Ladies and The Rheostatics.

• While Lightfoot's hit is the best known song about the wreck, he's not the only one to be inspired by the shipwreck. In November 2005, the Sault Symphony Orchestra in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. premiered a piano concerto dedicated to the wreck called The Edmund Fitzgerald.
Medium: Radio
Program: The World At Six
Broadcast Date: Nov. 11, 1975
Guest(s): William Holts
Host: George Rich
Reporter: Jim Syminek
Duration: 2:10

Last updated: November 15, 2012

Page consulted on July 10, 2014

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