It was exactly 40 years ago Tuesday when “the winds of November came early” and took the legendary Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald and 29 souls to the bottom of Lake Superior, a disaster memorialized in book and song that remains mired in maritime mystery.
The 729-foot ore-carrier, called the “Queen of the Great Lakes” sank during a brutal storm on the eastern section of the lake, but the exact cause of its demise continues to elude experts and historians. From the plausible explanations offered in Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting classic, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” to crackpot theories involving space aliens, theories abound as to what caused one of the 20th century’s best-chronicled American shipwrecks.
“There were no survivors and no witnesses and we will never know, definitely, what happened on Nov. 10, 1975,” Fredrick Stonehouse, the author of the 1982 book “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” told FoxNews.com. “We do know that the crew must have thought, ‘We’re hurt, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.'”
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee,’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead,
When the skies of November turn gloomy
– Gordon Lightfoot
The storm that day, by any measure, was horrible. But despite boasting 90 mph winds and waves measuring 25 feet, the vessel, laden with taconite pellets and headed from Superior, Wis., to Detroit (and not Cleveland, as Lightfoot sang), should have been able to survive, according to many historians. Its captain was the experienced E.R. McSorley and it was being followed by another ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, which never heard a distress call.
“Lake Superior seldom coughs up her victims unless they’re wearing life jackets,” Capt. Charles A. Millradt, commander of the Soo Coast Guard Station, said at the time. “As of this time, we have no reason to believe the men of the Fitzgerald had time to get into life jackets.”
The Coast Guard requested that the Anderson turn around after safely reaching port and search for the Fitzgerald, recalled Ed Belanger, 60, who was on board the ship. The storm was at its worst, he said, but the captain and crew all decided that if they were missing, they would hope another ship would do the same. The Anderson spent the next day and a half searching for the Fitzgerald.
“It was a complete white-out,” he told FoxNews.com. “Imagine being on a boat, and looking up and seeing water; that’s what it was like.”
The search for the Fitzgerald continued the following day on eastern Lake Superior about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay included two freighters, a pair of Coast Guard helicopters and two planes. As searches go, the weather was idyllic: the largest of all Great Lakes was mirror-flat and the gunmetal gray sky meant that there’d be little reflections off the lake named by French explorers “le lec superieur,” or “Upper Lake.”
The National Transportation Safety Board ruled in May 1978 that the “probable cause of this accident was the sudden massive flooding of the cargo hold due to the collapse of one or more hatch covers.” But the report admits that analysis of the wreckage “did not give any conclusive evidence as to the cause of the sinking.”
The Coast Guard said the Fitzgerald may have broken up and sunk before a distress call could be made. The Arthur M. Anderson did report receiving a call Monday night from the Fitzgerald indicating the doomed ship was taking on water, but its pumps were working and the vessel was not in immediate danger.
One Coast Guard spokesman said the Fitzgerald “probably broke in two.” But Ens. Kenneth Baker added that a hatch cover could have blown off, causing the vessel to take on water.
“In high seas, if they’re not secured, a couple of hatch covers could come off. If that happens, a ship will take on water very fast,” he said.
“I’m not a betting man, but if I had to put my money on it, I’d say she bottomed out at Caribou Shoal and could not overcome the damage,” he said.
The ship rests under 535 feet of cold Lake Superior water. Stonehouse said the wreck is on the Canadian side of the lake and the Canadian government has closed off all diving to preserve the ship and honor the crew members who rest there. In 1995, crews were able to retrieve the ship’s bronze bell.
Belanger agrees with the Canadian government that the wreck is a gravesite and should not be disturbed by new dive teams.
The Great Lakes has claimed other huge ore-carriers, including the Carl Bradley, which sank in Lake Michigan in November 1958, killing 33 of its 35 crew members, and the Daniel J. Morrell, which went down in Lake Huron in November 1966, killing 28 of its 29 crew members.
An estimated 30,000 people have died in shipwrecks on the Great Lakes over the last three centuries, according to the Rev. William Fleming, pastor of the Mariners’ Church of Detroit. A service was held there Sunday to remember victims from all disasters and tragedies on the Great Lakes, including the loss of the Fitzgerald.
The Associated Press contributed to this report