The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald....the Real Story
One of my favorite Gordon Lightfoot songs is called the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It was one of the first songs of his I learned to play and sing. The song was so haunting. Several years later I actually researched the wreck and discovered that it really happened. In a maritime museum in Michigan there is a rememberance for the 29 lives that were lost on that day in 1975.
The day was November 9th and at 8:30 AM the Edmund Fitzgerald was loaded with taconite pellets at Burlington Northern Railroad, Dock 1. The ship was scheduled to transport the cargo to Zug Island on the Detroit River. At 2:20 PM the Fitzgerald departs Lake Superior en route of Detroit with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets. Ninteen minutes later the National Weather Service issues gale warnings for the area which the Fitzgerald is sailing in. Captain Cooper on the Anderson radios a freighter (the Edmund Fitzgerald) that he spots. At 4:15 PM the Fitzgerald spots the Arthur M. Anderson some 15 miles behind it. OnNovember 10th at 1:00 in the morning there was a weather report from the Fitzgerald. The report from the Fitzgerald shows her to be 20 miles south of Isle Royale. Winds are at 52 knots, with waves ten feet in height. At 7:00 AM there was another weather report from the Fitzgerald. This one said that the winds are at 35 knots, waves of ten feet. This was the last weather report that the Edmund Fitzgerald would ever make. At 3:15 PM the Captain, Jesse Cooper, (J.C.) of the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson watches the Fitzgerald round Caribou Island and comments that the Fitzgerald is much closer to Six Fathom Shoal than he would want to be. Five minutes later the Anderson reports winds coming from the Northwest at 43 knots. At 3:30 PM
there was a radio transmission between the Fitzgerald and the Anderson that went like this between the two captains. This is documentation of the conversation between Captain McSorley (C.M.) to Captain Cooper (C.C.):
C.M.: "Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have sustained some topside damage. I have a fence rail laid down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I'm checking down. Will you stay by me til I get to Whitefish?"
C.C.: "Charlie on that Fitzgerald. Do you have your pumps going?"
C.M.: "Yes, both of them
At 4:10 PM the Fitzgerald radioed the Arthur M. Anderson requesting radar assistance for the remainder of the voyage.
Fitzgerald: "Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have lost both radars. Can you provide me with radar plots till we reach Whitefish Bay?"
Anderson: "Charlie on that, Fitzgerald. We'll keep you advised of position."
About 4:39 PM the Fitzgerald could not pick up the Whitefish Point radio beacon. The Fitzgerald radioed the Coast Guard station at Grand Marais on Channel 16, the emergency channel. Somewhere between 4:30 and 5:00 PM the Edmund Fitzgerald called for any vessel in the Whitefish Point area regarding information about the beacon and light at Whitefish Point. They received an answer by the saltwater vessel Avafors that the beacon and the light were not operating. It was estimated that somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00 PM
there was a radio transmission between the Avafors and the Fitzgerald.
Avafors: "Fitzgerald, this is the Avafors. I have the Whitefish light now but still am receiving no beacon. Over."
Fitzgerald: "I'm very glad to hear it."
Avafors: "The wind is really howling down here. What are the conditions where you are?"
Fitzgerald: (Undiscernable shouts heard by the Avafors.) "DON'T LET NOBODY ON DECK!"
Avafors: "What's that, Fitzgerald? Unclear. Over."
Fitzgerald: "I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I've ever been in."
Avafors: "If I'm correct, you have two radars."
Fitzgerald: "They're both gone."
Sometime around 7:00 PM the Anderson was struck by two huge waves that put water on the ship, 35 feet above the water line. The waves hit with enough force to push the starboard lifeboat down, damaging the bottom. At around 7:10 PM there was another radio transmission between the Anderson and the Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald was still being followed by the Arthur M. Anderson. They were about 10 miles behind the Fitzgerald.
Anderson: "Fitzgerald, this is the Anderson. Have you checked down?"
Fitzgerald: "Yes we have."
Anderson: "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 on ahead of you."
Fitzgerald: "Well, am I going to clear?"
Anderson: "Yes. He is going to pass to the west of you."
Fitzgerald: "Well, fine."
Anderson: "By the way, Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problem?"
Fitzgerald: "We are holding our own."
Anderson: "Okay, fine. I'll be talking to you later."
They never did speak later...The 29 men onboard the Fitzgerald would never again speak with anyone outside of the ship. Sometime between 7:20 and 7:30 PM it is estimated that this was the time period when the ship vanished and sank. At 7:15 PM the Fitzgerald entered a squall while still on Lake Superior; the squall obscured the vessel from radar observation by the Anderson; this was normal when in a squall. At 7:25 PM the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the radar of the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson, prompting a call to the Coast Guard to inform them of the situation. At 7:55 PM the Anderson called again and informed the Coast Guard that they had lost the Fitzgerald both visually and on radar. At 9:00 PM, the Coast Guard, with no available search ships, radioed the Arthur M. Anderson requesting their assistance.
C.G.: "Anderson, this is Group Soo. What is your present position?"
Anderson: "We're down here, about two miles off Parisienne Island right now... the wind is northwest forty to forty-five miles here in the bay."
C.G.: "Is it calming down at all, do you think?"
Anderson: "In the bay it is, but I heard a couple of the salties talking up there, and they wish they hadn't gone out."
After much more conversation and a request by the Coast Guard to return to search for the ship, reluctant to go out, the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson agrees to "give it a try" but claims that that is "all we can do." At 10:53 PM the first aircraft arrived on the scene from Traverse City, Michigan. The next day, November 11, 1975
at around 2:00 AM William Clay Ford arrives at the scene of the wreck.
I am going to Michigan with Mary, Kat, and Kat's friend Mandy in 14 days. The only thing I want to do in Michigan...is see the maritime museum and connect with the Edmund Fitzgerald. All throughout our history...men have died....at sea, at war, building, and crossing this great country. Their legacies are a part of what makes us...what we are....a great nation. A little over a year later, in 1976, the song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is released by Gordon Lightfoot to the public commemorating the shipwreck. This song is still performed to this day at his concerts. In May of 1976 the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is OFFICIALLY identified. In 1980, Jacque Cousteau's Calypso expedition takes place. Finally, in 1995, twenty years after the wreck, the bell of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was raised, restored, and replaced on the ship by a new bell with the names of the twenty nine men lost. This was the last time the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald would ever again be legally dived upon.
I am a woman who wears many hats and loves them all. I am a singer - I sing with the group Still Magnolias. I was part of the original First United Methodist Church Arbor Praise Team until we moved. After 24+ years of teaching English 11 and Spanish I - II at Benjamin Russell High School I decided to take a job closer to home. I now teach Spanish I & 2 at Randolph Co. High School and Wadley. I thought I was getting close to retirement and looking forward to it, but decided to move my cheese and try something different. I am a preacher's wife and a preacher myself. My husband Frank is the pastor at Rock Mills United Methodist Church and I am the pastor at Midway (Wedowee). It has made our conversations interesting, to say the least.