When the Edmund Fitzgerald was launched in 1958, it was the largest ship to sail the Great Lakes. At 729 feet and able to haul more than 25,000 tons of iron ore, the freighter was dubbed “The Pride of the American Flag.” Year after year, the Fitzgerald hauled iron ore and taconite out of the Twin Ports, breaking records for tonnage along the way. But by 1975, the Fitzgerald was showing signs of age. A rigorous Coast Guard inspection in the spring of her last shipping season netted a seaworthy certification, but another routine inspection on October 31 revealed cracks in four topside cargo hatches. She was allowed to keep sailing, but repairs were ordered to take place prior to the start of the 1976 season.
Capt. Ernest McSorley was also looking ahead to the next season. It would be his first year of retirement after forty-four years of sailing the Great Lakes and four seasons as master of the Fitzgerald. At sixty-two, he was a respected captain—both for his skill and for his will to keep to a tight schedule.
On November 9, the Edmund Fitzgerald was embarking on its fortieth voyage of the season, hauling 26,116 tons of taconite from Superior Harbor to Detroit. Twenty-nine crewmen were aboard.
The Fitz passed through the harbor channel at 2:20 p.m. in clear and relatively warm weather. Twenty minutes later, the National Weather Service posted a gale warning because of a storm system pushing up over Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Two hours out of port, the Fitz sighted another freighter heading toward the east, the Arthur M. Anderson, a U.S. Steel ship mastered by Capt. Jesse Cooper. The Anderson was coming from Two Harbors. McSorley hailed the Anderson and the two captains agreed to travel together to the Soo Locks. The Fitzgerald, already fifteen miles ahead, would lead the way.
By seven o’clock that evening, the National Weather Service was predicting forty-five-mile-an-hour winds and dangerous waves. The weather was quickly deteriorating. The prediction called for east to northeasterly winds during the night, shifting to northwest by the afternoon of November 10. At approximately 10:40 p.m., the forecast was revised to easterly winds becoming southeasterly the morning of November 10. By 1:00 a.m., the Fitzgerald was about twenty miles south of Isle Royale, confronted by heavy winds and ten-foot waves. At 2:00 a.m., the National Weather Service upgraded the gale warning to a storm warning with shifting sixty-mile-an-hour winds and fifteen-foot waves expected.
About that time, the captains of the Anderson and Fitzgerald discussed the threatening weather and decided to change their route. Heading northward toward the coast of Canada would give them shelter from the expected eastern winds and heavy waves. The ships were already battling sixty-mile winds and torrential rain. Visibility was extremely poor.
With the arrival of dawn, around the time that officials on land were issuing emergency warnings and school closings, the Edmund Fitzgerald reported its route change and an expected delay in arrival at the Soo Locks to the home office. Through the morning, the storm was gaining intensity, knocking out power across the Upper Peninsula and the Canadian coast.
By 2:45 p.m., the winds had taken a significant turn. Now the storm was barreling out of the northwest, pushing up larger waves. The Anderson reported wind gusts over seventy miles an hour. The two ships had lost their land protection.
The Coast Guard was calling on all ships to seek safe harbor. The captains decided to run south toward Whitefish Bay, their only hope for shelter. The Arthur Anderson was trailing faithfully sixteen miles behind as they approached Caribou Island. At 3:15, the Fitz rounded the island heading into the Six Fathom Shoal, a dangerous stretch where only thirty-six feet of water covered the jagged rocky bottom. Cooper followed the Fitzgerald’s progress on radar while crew members watched from the deck. As the Fitz slugged on, Morgan Clark, Cooper’s first mate, called out, “He sure looks like he’s in the shoal area.” Cooper replied, “He sure does. He’s in too close. He’s closer than I’d want this ship to be.”
Around that time, McSorley radioed Cooper: “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list.” McSorley added that he was going to slow down so the Anderson could catch up. “Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?” Cooper replied, “Charlie on that, Fitzgerald. Do you have your pumps going?” McSorley replied, “Yes, both of them.”
But the storm was only growing worse. The sea was pitching thirty to thirty-five foot waves. McSorley radioed the Anderson that the raging winds had ripped off the Fitzgerald’s radar antenna. A heavy snow began falling, obliterating Cooper’s view of the Fitzgerald’s lights dead ahead. Winds were gusting to ninety. The Fitz was taking on water faster than it could pump it out.
At 4:30 p.m., the Fitz was seventeen miles from Whitefish Point. The lighthouse at the end of the rugged stretch of land would have been within view had the storm not knocked out both the radio beacon and light. Having already lost its radar and now with daylight fast slipping away, the Fitzgerald put a call out to any ship in the area for help in locating the Whitefish beacon.
The Avafors, a Swedish ocean freighter in the vicinity, radioed McSorley the news of the missing signals. Around 6:00 p.m. the Avafors called again:
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: [Unintelligible 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.”
Then at 7:10 p.m. the Anderson’s first mate, Clark, spoke to McSorley:
Anderson: “Fitzgerald, this is the Anderson. Have you checked down?”
Fitzgerald: “Yes, we have.”
Anderson: “Fitzgerald, we are about ten miles behind you, and gaining about one and a half miles per hour. Fitzgerald, there is a target nineteen miles ahead of us. So the target would be nine 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.”
But there would be no further conversations. Shortly after that, the Anderson was struck by two enormous waves in quick succession, plunging the ship’s bow into the water and hitting her hard enough to cause a heavy roll to the starboard side, damaging one of the lifeboats. Captain Cooper later reported, “I watched those two waves head down the lake toward the Fitzgerald, and I think those were the two that sent her under.”
Ten minutes later the Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson’s radar. No distress signal went out. No lifeboats were launched. No life vests were donned.