Fitzgerald sinking remains one of area’s greatest mysteries

Ryan Hutjens, Reporter

Some De Pere HS students may have heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald, maybe through relatives up north along Lake Superior. 

The Edmund Fitzgerald was an impressive feat of engineering on the water, being one of the largest ships on the lake. The Fitzgerald unfortunately did not make it to its destination one fateful night, and its tale lives on through museums, monuments and hearts of people.

Thursday, Nov. 10 marks 47 years since the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, also known as the Fitz, which was an ore freighter that sank on Lake Superior in a bad rain storm.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was no match for the rainstorm unfortunately, even with a well-seasoned captain named Ernest M. McSorley. McSorley was at the time commanding an engineering marvel that spanned 729 feet long and 75 feet wide.

The ship’s total cost to build was 84 million, and she was the largest ship on the lake at the time. It was such a big ordeal on its first launch that it drew 15,000 spectators. 

On that fateful day Nov. 10, 1975, at about 5:20 p.m., it was reported that waves were up to 25 feet and winds were at a steady 58 knots (66 MPH) and strong gusts up to 70 knots (80 MPH).

But Fitz was not alone that day, for she had the Arthur M. Andersen. The two vessels stayed between 10 – 15 miles apart. The Fitz was ahead, and the Andersen was behind. 

Both ships remained in radio contact, as both ships were both heading to Whitefish Point.  

As the storm raged on, and the waves pounded on the Edmund Fitzgerald, it was reported by McSorley that he had a fence rail down, vents lost and a long list going on and on.

At 6:55 p.m., the Andersen’s captain, Bernie Cooper, radioed in that he and his men felt a mighty bump that lurched the ship forward, and then turned to see a massive mighty wave come over the stern and engulfed the entire ship. The wave then smacked into the back of the pilot house, and sent them down under the water. But, the Andersen came back up and shook itself off.

Then, another wave hit the Andersen but didn’t take the Andersen down. Captain Cooper watched the two waves go in the direction of the Fitzgerald, and Cooper believes that those were the two waves to send the ship down under.  

At about 7:10 pm, the Andersen radioed the Fitzgerald for one last time.  First mate Clark asked, “By the way, Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problems?” McSorley’s response was, “We are holding our own.” 

The Andersen tried making contact with the Fitzgerald again around 7:22 p.m., but the Fitzgerald did not respond and that would have been the last radio transmission sent from the ship. 

Captain Cooper contacted the William Clay Ford as it was the nearest vessel, and asked to see if his phone was putting out a good signal and if they heard if the Fitz made it safely to Whitefish point. That report came back negative that the Fitz was at Whitefish Point, but McSorley’s phone was putting out a good signal.

At 8:00 p.m. McSorley radioed the Coast Guard and expressed that he was worried about the Edmund Fitzgerald, that he did not see its lights when he was supposed to and couldn’t make radio contact with the ship. 

The Coast Guard asked McSorley if he was willing to turn around and search for the Fitzgerald. McSorley obliged.

The Andersen took lead in the search, and the only thing the crew managed to find was debris and two of the lifeboats of the Fitzgerald. The William Clay Ford left Whitefish Point and took part in the search, but didn’t find anything.

The coast guard sent out two cutters and an airplane around 10 p.m., but they did not find the ship either. 

The ship was successfully located by airplane carrying a magnetic anomaly detector which detected a strong contact 17 miles away from Whitefish Point. 

The following May in 1976 the Coast Guard used a Navy controlled underwater recovery vehicle and found the wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald. On May 20, 1976, the words “Edmund Fitzgerald” were clearly seen on the ship’s stern, upside down. The vessel split into two pieces with the bow right side up.

It’s been a hotly debated topic on how the Edmund Fitzgerald went down, as there was never a reason established or given. Captain Cooper believes that McSorley knew all along his ship was sinking, but McSorley also knew that there was nothing that could have been done to save the ship or its crew.

 The Coast Guard believes that the crew on the Fitz may not have tightened down the hatches to the cargo hold with all the clamps, as it was common practice to only tighten some because there were so many clamps to do per hatch. Some firmly believe that this was not at all the case. 

There is absolutely zero evidence on how or why this ship sank, and we may never know.