SS Edmund Fitzgerald
by John Delach
Gordon Lightfoot’s poignant and profound poetry fills his lyrics of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Lines like: The lake it is said never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was named after the president of its owner, Northwestern Mutual Life. Ordered in 1957, she was an investment for that life insurance company. When completed in 1958, the “Fitz,” was the largest ore carrier operating on the Great Lakes, a distinction the ship would carry until 1971. This US flag laker had several other nicknames, Mighty Fitz, Big Fitz, Pride of the American Side, Toledo Express. And regrettably, Titanic of the Great Lakes. Northwestern signed a 25-year contract with Oglebay Norton, a major lakes carrier to operate this lake boat. The operator designated the Big Fitz as the flagship of their American fleet.
The Big Fitz left Superior, Wisconsin at 2:35 pm on November 9, 1975 with a full load of treated iron ore called taconite. The ship sailed under the command of Captain Ernest M. McSorley with a crew of 29. These twenty-nine consisted of the captain, three mates, five engineers, three oilers a cook, a wiper, two maintenance men, three watchmen, three deckhands, three wheelmen, two porters, a cadet and a steward. They ranged in age from 20, (watchman, Karl A. Peckol), to 63, Captain McSorley. Their route would take them across Lake Superior to Detroit, through the Soo Locks to a steel mill on Zug Island.
Capt. McSorley decided to join the laker, Arthur M Anderson captained by Bernie Cooper in an informal convoy of mutual protection. The National Weather Service (NWS) predicted that a storm would pass just south of Lake Superior by 7 am on November 10th.
The wind in the wires a tattle-tale sound and a wave broke over the railing. And every man knew and the captain did too t’was the witch of November came stealin.
Another laker, SS Wilfred Sykes, loaded opposite the Big Fitz. Its captain, Dudley J. Paquette, didn’t trust the NSW forecast and predicted a major storm was coming. He decided to take a more circuitous route across the lake staying closer to the shelter of its north shore. By radio, they learned that the Big Fitz and the Anderson’s masters had decided to make their runs out in the middle of Superior.
At 7 pm the NWS altered its forecast issuing gale warnings for the entire lake. The two lakers altered course northward seeking that same shelter of the north coast before the storm struck at one am on November 10. The Fitz and the Anderson reported winds of 60 mph and waves 10 feet high. At about the same time, Capt. Paquette of the Sykes heard Capt. Mc Sorley tell the Anderson that he had hit a rough patch and “You are walking away from us… I can’t stay with you.”
Despite that transmission and the NWS’s early morning update upgrading wind speed to neat hurricane speeds of 58 mph, McSorley had a change of heart and his faster laker pulled ahead of the Anderson around 3:00 am. About the same time, it began to snow. A half-hour later, McSorley radioed the Anderson that the Big Fitz was taking on water through two vent covers blown away by the wind and the high seas. The Big Fitz had developed a list, but, fortunately, two of the ships six bilge pumps were up to the task of controlling the flooding.
The storm compounded the Big Fitz’s dilemma. Both radars were blown away so the captain slowed his boat so the Anderson could get close enough to guide the now blind giant. With the Big Fitz in peril, McSorley chose to head for the shelter of Whitefish Bay on the Canadian side. He used the radio to ask for help from other ships in the area about the condition of navigation aids leading to this possible shelter.
Captain Cedric Woodward of the laker, Avafors, communicated with McSorley between 5:00 and 5:30 pm. Woodward later testified that he overheard McSorley say: “Don’t allow nobody on deck.” McSorley also told Woodard, “I have a ‘bad list.’ I have lost both radars, and am taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.”
Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves from minutes to hours?
By late afternoon, the Arthur M. Anderson sustained wind speeds as high as 67 MPH and wave heights of 25 feet. At 6 pm, this lake boat suffered through wind gusts of between 81 and 86 MPH and rogue waves of 35 feet.
At 7:10 pm, Capt Cooper radioed the Big Fitz and asked McSorley, how he was doing? McSorley replied: “We are holding our own.”
These were the last words ever heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald. No distress signal was received. Ten-minutes later, the Anderson lost both radio and radar contact with the Big Fitz. The big laker was gone.
And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters.
To be continued.